Washington, 9 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A top U.S. official, just back from Kabul, marked International Women's Day yesterday by stating that progress on Afghan women's rights is "unstoppable."
But Afghan-born human rights advocates, pointing to slow progress and a number of self-immolations by Afghan women over the past year, begged to differ.
The contrasting comments came at a forum held at RFE/RL's Washington office yesterday as people across the globe observed International Women's Day.
"Women and young girls are being forced to marry. There can't be any worse oppression than this."
Charlotte Ponticelli, coordinator of International Women's Issues for the U.S. State Department, painted an upbeat picture of the situation for Afghan women nearly two and a half years after the fall of the Taliban.
"I can tell you from my experience that progress is unstoppable. There's a lot that the United States of America can be proud of. There's a lot more to do," Ponticelli said.
Western media reports from Afghanistan tend to agree that women are making progress since the collapse of a regime that brutally suppressed them and denied them basic rights.
Ponticelli, who recently returned from Kabul, said things have "categorically" improved for Afghan women.
She said U.S.-sponsored projects for women in Afghanistan now number 175 and include health care, educational, and economic programs as well as a drive to register women voters to take part in national elections in June.
"I can state absolutely that things are better in Afghanistan now than they were a year ago, and certainly two years ago, not to mention a decade ago," Ponticelli said.
But Ponticelli's message was contrasted with the views of Afghan-born human rights advocates who also spoke at the forum.
Zieba Shorish-Shamley directs the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan. Taking issue with an assertion by Ponticelli that 28 percent of registered Afghan voters are women, Shorish-Shamley said the national figure is closer to 10 percent as women are regularly harassed in the provinces when they seek to assert their rights.
"A great deal is better for the Afghan woman. She can go outside without the Taliban in tow, but she's harassed by a lot of armed men. She can go if she wants a job, but there are not jobs available for her to do. She wants to be healthy, but there's not a health care system there. The worst part is that she does not have the right to choose who she wants to marry," Shorish-Shamley said.
The issue of forced Afghan marriages is making headlines in the Western press. Several newspapers and broadcasters have recently carried stories about a recent string of self-immolations by Afghan women in despair over forced marriages, domestic violence and a lack of respect for their rights.
"There are still forced marriages and women are burning themselves,” Shorish-Shamley says. “In Herat, at least 40 women burned themselves alive, and four more just last week. This is widespread and it is not reported most of the time."
Sima Wali, head of Refugee Women in Development, is another Afghan-born activist. She told the forum that what the U.S. government is reporting in Afghanistan differs with what she has seen there herself.
Wali says "relative" advances have been made for women, but the situation is still dire.
"These advances are tempered with neo-Taliban practices against women. Women are still subjected to sexual violence, torture, trafficking in women, forced marriage, domestic violence -- and the list goes on and on," Wali said.
Wali says she is troubled by the slow pace of improvement in the lives of all Afghans, by accommodation deals made with provincial warlords, by continuing poor security and by financial pledges to the country reneged on by the international community.
"We, sadly, are losing momentum to build on the initial goodwill of the Afghan people toward the United States. And in my discourse and dialogues with scores of Afghan women, it is evident that there is a heightened frustration over a lack of what I deem as the trickle-down of peace and democracy to the common Afghan person -- this is not happening," Wali said.
Some of these shortcomings were cited yesterday in a speech in Kabul by Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.
Karzai used International Women's Day to urge his country's religious leaders to do more to free women from social and tribal bonds and end their continued oppression.
"Women and young girls are being forced to marry," Karzai said in a speech at Kabul Polytechnic Institute. "There can't be any worse oppression than this. It is in direct contravention of Islam, our religion. We are hoping that our country's ulema [religious scholars], through their preaching in mosques, will tell people that this is unjust, is oppression and is against Islam."
Karzai urged women to ignore security threats from remnants of the Taliban regime and register to vote in Afghanistan's first free general elections, which are tentatively scheduled for June.
Afghanistan's constitution, passed in January, allows women to engage in political and social life and is supposed to give them 25 percent of the seats in parliament.