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Afghanistan: Education Seen As Key To Improving Plight Of Women

International Women's Day was observed across the globe last week (Friday), and much of the attention this year focused on the role of women in Afghan society. Participants in discussions at UN headquarters in New York warned of the danger of partial solutions toward the active integration of women in Afghan society. While the fall of the Taliban regime was seen as a first step on the long road toward gender equalization, many were cautious in their assessment of women's social advancement in Afghanistan.

United Nations, 11 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a speech marking UN observances of International Women's Day, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the women of Afghanistan need more than expressions of solidarity. They need, he said, "concrete help."

Annan described the plight of Afghan women as "an affront to all standards of dignity, equality and humanity" and called for building more schools and training more teachers to ensure every Afghan girl's right to an education.

"Wherever there is a violent conflict, women and girls are often the first victims. Violence against women, especially in the home, is a worldwide epidemic, and trafficking in women and girls is the fastest-growing form of organized crime. Women's work continues to be undervalued, underpaid, or not paid at all. And in almost all countries, women continue to be under-represented in decision-making positions."

Laura Bush, the wife of U.S. President George W. Bush, also participated in UN events marking International Women's Day. She said Afghanistan now has an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild, thanks to efforts led by the United Nations, the United States, the interim Afghan administration, and friendly nations around the world.

Bush said a major focus of the Afghan rebuilding effort should be placed on education: "Prosperity cannot follow peace without educated women and children. When people are educated, all the indexes of a society improve. For example, improvements in women's education have contributed the most by far to the total decline in child malnutrition. And mothers with a secondary education have children with mortality rates nearly 36 percent lower than mothers with only a primary school education."

Echoing this theme, the president of the UN General Assembly, Han Seung-soo of South Korea, called on Afghan donor countries to encourage the interim Afghan authorities to guarantee girls equal access to education.

"The international community should continue to encourage the new leadership of the interim authority to empower the Afghan women as full partners in the post-conflict reconstruction of their country. The donor countries to Afghanistan should place high priority on promoting and protecting the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. In particular, girls should be guaranteed equal access to education."

Angela King, the UN's special adviser on gender issues, said there are forces in Afghanistan that are not truly interested in promoting women's rights: "The Ministry for Women's Affairs was without an office for almost two months of the interim administration. Some clearly wanted to use the Ministry of Women's Affairs just as a symbol. But symbolism will not solve all the problems of women in this country."

Sima Wali is president of Refugee Women in Development, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C. She said women's rights in Afghanistan were guaranteed in the country's 1964 constitution and that women had the right to vote in the country as early as the 1920s. But Wali expressed concern about current attempts to prevent women in Afghanistan from equal participation in the decision-making process.

"I fear that once again our rights as more than half of the Afghan population are threatened when partial solutions instead of long-term engagement toward nation-building are offered."

She also said traditional customs and culture are being manipulated in Afghanistan to keep women in denigrated positions.

"I'm fearful when culture is used to keep Afghan women subservient and disenfranchised. I am here today to tell you that my culture does not propagate violence, torture, rape, prostitution, or the trafficking and sale of young women and children. It does not drive women into poverty, starvation, deny them education or medical care. My religion does not promote the bondage of women. It does not dehumanize women."

Reflecting on the same subject, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund, said many women in the Muslim world have been dismayed to see the perversion of Islam for unjust causes.

"While all of us have been shocked, saddened, and angered by the denial of the rights of Afghan women, many Muslim women like me were deeply saddened and angered to see how the values of Islam were twisted to justify the oppression of women and the promotion of terror."

Queen Noor, the widow of King Hussein of Jordan, is a well-known advocate of Muslim women's rights. Speaking at the UN, she said the priorities of Afghan women are "simple and basic: security, first and foremost; health; education; and more of a voice in community and national affairs."

Noor also underscored the importance of education: "If we educate women, they will know their rights. They will study the Quran and learn that Islam gives them their rights, including the right to education equal to that of men."

Noor says that in countries such as Afghanistan, promoting women's participation in society is difficult, especially in rural areas. She said it will require working at the grass-roots level to empower women to play full roles in their communities. She said this cannot be achieved simply by changing legislation at the national level.