Letter: 'Afghanistan is most challenging place to be a woman'
- Credit: AP
My original intention in writing was to suggest a day when all women wear the burqa to support the women of Afghanistan?
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women have gained political rights.
The Afghan constitution was altered to state that the ‘citizens of Afghanistan’ – whether man or woman – ‘would have equal rights and duties before the law.’
Women have even been appointed to positions in the government.
Having said this since most women are illiterate - they are not engaged in political or economic development.
Poorer women in rural areas contribute to growing food and feeding their families but as is the norm in many countries their work is mostly invisible and unpaid.
The government under President Karzai reduced women’s rights when it was felt to be expedient denying women the right to leave their homes except for legitimate purposes.
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They also forbid women from working or receiving education without their husband’s permission, awarded custody to the male members of family in divorce and permitted marital rape!
How can women be expected to rise socially or economically under such circumstances?
This said, some progress was made in women’s development.
Any gains, however marginal, made by Afghan women over the last 20 years are under grave threat.
With foreign troops and diplomats hastily fleeing Afghanistan and humanitarian aid withering, Afghan women face rapidly escalating crisis of health, education and violence.
Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman.
The country has a 14% literacy rate – contrast this with a 99% female literacy rate in the UK and USA.
80% of females lack access to an education centre.
A woman dies every 27 minutes due to pregnancy-related complications.
There are on average 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,00 births.
In the remote mountainous province of Badakhshan, the rate is 6,500 per 100,000 – the highest recorded rate of maternal mortality in the world.
More than 50% of Afghan girls are married or engaged by 12. Almost 60% of girls are married by 16.
Most girls marry men far older than themselves whom they meet for the first time at their wedding
A lack of security from 3 decades of war and the risk of kidnapping and rape, has also prompted many families to force their young daughters into marriage.
Some girls are bartered into marriage to repay debt or resolve a dispute.
Poverty compels many parents to get their daughters married to avoid the cost of caring for them.
Married girls do not continue their education and remain illiterate.
They have babies whilst young, increasing health problems and death for themselves and their children.
In Kabul, it is not unusual for young girls to be admitted to hospital shortly after marriage in a state of shock from serious physical illness.
Afghanistan has more than 1.5 million widows, one of the highest proportions in the world.
Many men were killed in the armed conflicts and older husbands are likely to die sooner than their child brides.
The average age of an Afghan widow is 35 and 94% of them are illiterate.
Many are hidden and isolated, forced to wear the burqa and can only leave home if fully covered and accompanied by a man.
A culture prohibiting women to appear in public combined with a lack of education means women enjoy few economic opportunities.
With the return of the Taliban, there is the distinct possibility that many women between the ages of 15 – 45 will be forced to marry Taliban fighters.
Offering wives is a strategy aimed at luring militants to join the Taliban.
This is sexual enslavement, not marriage, and forcing women into sexual slavery under the guise of marriage is both a war crime and a crime against humanity.
The struggle for gender equality in Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East is a Middle Eastern struggle.
But the governments of Europe and more especially the USA, through its wealth and influence, must play a more supportive and inclusive role in improving the role of women.
They can do this by demanding their inclusion in peace negotiations by making aid conditional upon women’s rights and their access to education and employment.
There must be no impunity for acts of social violence as part of a comprehensive approach to seeking peace, justice and national reconciliation in Afghanistan
After writing this article I’m not quite so sure about the validity of wearing the burqa!