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Fatal Afghan Shooting Highlights Risks For Female Health Workers

An Afghan woman holds a child as a health worker administers a polio vaccine. Polio-eradication can be dangerous work in some parts of Afghanistan, because some religious extremists have condemned it.
Anisa, a volunteer Afghan health worker, had just left her home and was on her way to work when two armed men on motorcycles zipped past her.

The gunmen shot the 20-year-old student, who worked as a village polio-vaccination worker, at least six times in the abdomen. Anisa was whisked to a local hospital in her hometown of Kohistan, in the eastern Kapisa Province, but died shortly after being admitted.

The Taliban has denied involvement, but suspicion has nevertheless fallen on the militant group. The Taliban has in the past been accused of undermining the polio-immunization campaign on the basis that it is part of a Western plot to harm the Afghan population, and has a long history of carrying out violent acts against women.

There are reasons to believe Anisa's work, or even the fact that she was working at all, might have played a part in her killing.

Anisa's death, which occurred on December 1, came just a day after she survived another attempt on her life. She was walking on the street when unknown gunmen fired at her.

According to Afghan media reports, Anisa had received several threatening phone calls in the days leading up to her death warning her to stop work.

Safura Kohistani, the director of the provincial Department of Women's Affairs in Kapisa, says many Afghan women who work outside their home, which is still rare many places across Afghanistan, are often targeted.

Death Threats

Kohistani maintains that women often receive death threats via phone calls or night letters, a written threat delivered during the evening, warning them to stop working or risk being targeted.

"Women are extremely worried about this," she says. "Women who are working as teachers, or for the government, or for civil society are scared that if they work such a fate might befall them too."

Kohistani has condemned the perpetrators of the killing as "cowards" and has called on authorities to do more to enforce a 2009 law on eliminating violence against women, which rights activists say is still only periodically enforced.

Kohistani says women who suffer from violence almost never receive justice. Even if their cases go to trial, she says, the majority result in the acquittal of the perpetrators, the dropping of charges to less serious crimes, convictions with shorter sentences, or the female victims themselves being accused of "moral crimes" for making private matters public.

Women's Affairs Minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar said last month that cases of "extreme or brutal violence" against women had increased this year. She said her ministry reported some 3,500 cases of violence against women in the first six months of this year alone.

According to Kohistani, there have been previous instances of violence against women in Kapisa, but that Anisa's death is a first.

"There have been cases [of violence against women] stemming from domestic issues," she says. "But this is the first time we have seen a politically-motivated case where a girl who was at school and working on a polio-vaccination program was targeted."

Anisa was working on a polio-immunization program funded by the United Nations, which along with the World Health Organization takes a leading role in eliminating the crippling and deadly disease.

Polio is spread when people eat food or drink water contaminated by feces. Afghanistan, along with Pakistan and Nigeria, is just one of three countries where polio is endemic, according to the United Nations.

With just some two-thirds of children in Kapisa vaccinated against polio, volunteers are working toward the goal of ensuring that all the province's children are immunized.

'Un-Islamic' Vaccinations

Taliban factions, particularly inside Pakistan, have condemned the UN immunization drive and their threats of violence have stopped programs in Taliban-controlled areas in Pakistan's northwest and even some border areas inside Afghanistan.

Opposition from religious extremists is seen as a key reason for the failure of polio-eradication programs in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Local Taliban factions in Pakistan have issued fatwas and imposed a "ban" on the antipolio campaign, calling it a Western plot to sterilize Muslim populations.

Another myth often spread by religious extremists is that vaccinations are "un-Islamic" and an attempt to prevent the will of God.

In a bid to stop the antipolio campaign, the Pakistani Taliban have kidnapped, beaten, and assassinated health officials.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier this year blamed Taliban resistance for the increase of polio cases in Afghanistan.

Through an antipolio campaign involving thousands of volunteers and a number of international agencies, Afghanistan had almost wiped out the deadly disease.

In 2010, the Afghan government registered only 25 polio cases. But that figure tripled to 76 last year.

Karzai called on the Taliban to allow teams of vaccinators to administer antipolio drops to children in areas under their control.

In a message addressed to the militants, he said: "Those who stand in the way of vaccination are the true enemies of our children's future."

Written and reported by Frud Bezhan with additional reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Hanayish in Kabul
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.