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Afghanistan: New York Events Examine Progress Of Women

Two events in New York this week examined the progress women have made in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban government last year. RFE/RL spoke with participants who said that while women have made some progress, much work remains to be done.

New York, 25 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Dr. Sima Samar, the former Afghan minister of women's affairs, has appealed to international donors to tie the distribution of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to the advancement of women's rights there.

She made the appeal this week during a presentation to the New York-based, nonprofit Asia Society.

Samar said there has been some improvement for women compared to the situation under the Taliban but that women still do not have a voice in Afghan society. She said there are powerful forces trying to undermine women's rights.

Samar served as the minister for women's affairs in the first Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai. She lost her post earlier this year and was accused by conservative groups of blaspheming Islam. She was later absolved of the charge.

Among the advances achieved, Samar noted that women can now work and go to school, but she said these victories have come at a cost. She said the main concern for Afghan women remains the most basic: how to make women's rights and humans rights relevant to a population that is largely illiterate.

Her comments were seconded by Jennifer Seymour Whitaker, an adjunct senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations. Whitaker told RFE/RL that securing women's rights remains a challenge for President Karzai and international donors. She said many of the warlords ruling in the regions still adhere to a very conservative code in gender relationships. This poses many challenges for women's advocates, women themselves, and donors, as they try to build a democracy in Afghanistan that includes women as well as men.

Whitaker told RFE/RL the most urgent matter for Afghan women is participating in forming the national constitution, which is to be completed and approved some time in the coming one to two years. "In the next 12 to 15 months, I think the donors -- U.S. and the UN, and the Europeans, and the other international donors -- have to put the particular emphasis on keeping women's voices represented in the process, the constitutional process, and the process leading up to the next Loya Jirga. There should be a real effort made to get real representation of women in the next Loya Jirga," Whitaker said.

Samar said a lack of education and quality health care continue to be among the main obstacles toward women's advancement. She added that while women now have the right to work, very few of them can actually make use of that right. "Programs are needed for vocational training and not only for [simple jobs] and handicrafts but also for nontraditional occupations such as electronics. The economic development must make it possible for women to make an adequate living to support themselves and their families," Samar said.

Both Samar and Whitaker stressed the importance of the radio as a medium for advancing women's rights in Afghanistan. The main reason, Samar said, is that most people are illiterate and the radio is the most effective medium for reaching them.

Whitaker told RFE/RL there is a pressing need for educational radio programs made by, and for, women. "Radio is the most important educational tool for teaching people about democracy, as well as about human rights. Certainly for giving women a sense that their voices are heard, there needs to be [radio] programs for, by, and about women, and to educate women about various areas, health care, as well as citizenship training, and to make them feel part of the outside world," Whitaker said.

Samar added that special women's centers need to be established in all of the country's provinces, as places where women can come together and talk about issues.