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Afghan women fear losing rights

08 March 2012

by Madeleine Davies

Afghan visitors: Zahra Hasanpur (right) and Masuma Sharifi in London CHRISTIAN AID

Afghan visitors: Zahra Hasanpur (right) and Masuma Sharifi in London CHRISTIAN AID

WOMEN’S-RIGHTS activists in Afghanistan are calling on the international community to maintain its commitment to their cause, amid fears that the with­drawal of the military in 2014 could see their progress undone.

Zahra Hasanpur, of Women Activities and Social Services Association (WASSA), a partner of Christian Aid, said during a trip to London that women were afraid of losing their hard-won gains as the Government prepared to conduct peace talks with insurgents.

“We don’t want peace by losing our position in society, by losing what we just achieved during the past ten years.”

Mrs Hasanpur was part of a delegation of 17 Afghan activists who travelled to Ireland last month, to learn lessons from the Northern Irish peace process. Delegates attended talks organised by British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG).

Speaking after the trip, she emphasised the “significant changes” in the situation of women in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled in 2010. “We were able to bring women out of their homes, out of their shells, and to convince men that women have the same rights as men have in society.”

WASSA delivers awareness campaigns and training, and engages with religious leaders to promote its programmes. Mrs Hasanpur recalls a time when women were not allowed to attend meetings to discuss the programmes in a mosque. “Now, males and females sit together and talk, and women are not voiceless.”

But Mrs Hasanpur highlighted violence against women, a lack of education and health facilities, and high maternal mortality as continuing challenges.

NATO forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by 2014, and preparations for peace talks between the Govern­ment and insurgents are being made. Mrs Hasanpur reported that many people in the country feared the return of the Taliban.

She was concerned that, without international funding, NGOs would have to cease their work. “Women are not the priority for the government. . . We still need to be supported by the international communities.”

The director for Afghanistan at Christian Aid, Serena Di Matteo, agreed that progress had been made in the past ten years, but said that the forthcoming peace-process “has to be a process that is inclusive, transparent, and comprehensive, including minorities and women”.

Christian Aid currently supports a number of programmes in partnership with local NGOs, including a project to offer legal advice to women in prison. “We need to have the UK government, which is a key player, to support the development of the country,” Ms Di Matteo said. “Otherwise there is a fear that it will fall again into civil war, and whatever we have done, even that little bit, is going to be lost.”

Online guidance. New guidelines were issued this week by the Ulema Council, a religious advisory body comprised Afghanistan’s leading clerics. They were published on the website of President Karzai.

The guidelines, as translated by the Afghan analyst Ahmad Shuja, state that “men are fundamental and women are secondary,” and set out the rights and responsibilities of women, including a prohibition on travelling without a man.

An Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, Heather Barr, said the endorsement of the statement by the President was “really dismaying”.

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