PERSPECTIVES: Afghan Women's Fate Uncertain

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By Devinder Kumar

NEW DELHI - Eminent human rights activist and lawyer Najla Ayubi has expressed profound concern about the situation of women and girls if the judiciary is placed in the hands of the Taliban as a result of negotiations aimed at ushering in peace and reconciliation in the country.

"I think it was a mistake that the Taliban were not part of the negotiations at the Bonn conference in 2001 in the first place. Now, there are rumors that the judiciary will be given to the Taliban. How can women's rights be protected if the judiciary is in the hands of the Taliban, who believe that women should not be part of daily life, part of development and improvement of the country, or part of the prosperity of the country?

"Ever since the announcement of the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, we observe that even the international communities are not taking women’s issues seriously. What could be expected from the Taliban? This is my concern, but hopefully this will not be the reality," said Ayubi, a former prosecutor and Commissioner of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) of Afghanistan.

Ayubi, who also served as a legal advisor to the State Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs within the Afghan Government, is co-author of the Afghanistan in 2011: A Survey of the Afghan People, the broadest public opinion poll in the country, conducted by the Asia Foundation.

The Survey released in Kabul on November 15, 2011 found that 82 percent of 6,348 Afghan citizens across all 34 provinces, who were asked for their views on security, reconciliation, economy, and governance, support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with the Taliban. In-person interviews took place between July 2 and August 1, 2011.

Backing for the government's peace and reconciliation efforts and negotiations with the armed opposition is high in all regions and highest in the East (89 percent), South West (87 percent), North West (85 percent) and South East (83 percent). Eighty-one percent of respondents also agree with the government providing assistance, jobs and housing to those who lay down arms and want to reintegrate into society.

Former Asia Foundation program director for Law, Human Rights, and Women's Empowerment in Kabul, Ayubi, said: "The high support for peace and reconciliation was a very surprising and important finding in this year's survey. It's surprising to see that 82 percent of the people support peace and reconciliation, which has interesting implications for the peace process."

Religious leaders received the highest vote of confidence and optimism of the Afghan people among local governance institutions, according to Survey. "Seventy percent of respondents say that there should be regular consultation with religious leaders about problems in their area, while 74 percent rank religious leaders as one of the three most trusted institutions. This trend is the highest since 2006, when 61 percent of respondents said there should be regular consultation with religious leaders," noted Mohammad Osman Tariq focusing on an important aspect of the Survey.

Commenting this finding, Ayubi said in an interview with In Asia editor Alma Freeman: "I also found it surprising that 74 percent of the respondents said they have confidence in religious leaders and 70 percent of respondents say that religious leaders should be consulted on problems facing an area."

The Survey shows lower levels of support by women than men for reconciliation with armed opposition groups. The reason, according to Ayubi, is that women have been marginalized by the Taliban and other armed opposition groups for decades.

"That’s why woman don’t have much empathy for the armed opposition groups, and are not as supportive as men for the so called peace and reconciliation process which is going on with the government. In many cases, they feel they won't get any benefit from this type of negotiation – specifically, they worry their rights will be compromised, and for me as an Afghan woman, I'm also afraid that my rights will be compromised during these peace talks," said Ayubi.

"Two of the biggest issues that affect women's lives here are the lack of freedom of movement to work outside of the home and access to education. In the current peace talks, how this will be factored in is totally up in the air. It's very clear that women support peace, but not the kind of approach that risks compromising their rights," she added.

"Also, women are only symbolically part of the peace talks: some women have been put in high-level positions, like at the High Peace Council or at the local, provincial level in peace talk committees, but they aren't able to actually represent women's voices and interests there.

"For example, some of the women representatives in the High Peace Council have said that in many cases when there is a peace talk trip inside of the country, they are not allowed to be part of the delegation. The male representatives say that due to the security situation, women aren’t able to come.

"But this makes me ask, if the security is a problem for women, why is it not a problem for men? If the men can go and be protected by security forces, then why can't the same be done for women? It's more of a stereotype or patriarchal thinking that women are not eligible to be in peace talks rather than anything having to do with their ability," Ayubi stated.

She was recently named country director for the Open Society Foundation (OSF's) Afghanistan office. Ayubi is also an Executive Board Member of the Afghan Woman’s Network and Global Advisory Board Member of South Asia Women's Regional Network.

Girls' Education

The Survey respondents report the highest level of satisfaction with the availability of education for children, with almost three quarters (73 percent) saying this is quite good or very good in their local area. Yet, education and illiteracy (25 percent) remain the major problems facing women in Afghanistan.

Undoubtedly, the percentage of newly enrolled girls in schools has increased to more than 38 percent of total children enrolled in the past three or four year. "But, when your compare this to boys, at 62 percent newly enrolled, the balance is just not there. Out of a population of 6 million, there are more than 2 million girls attending school. Which, when compared with the Taliban era, is certainly an improvement, but this is not enough. When it comes to improvement in education overall, boys have benefited more than girls, which is one reason why education is cited as a bigger problem for women than it is for men."

"Although girls’ enrollment is higher now at the primary school level," she said, "you approach 12th grade, that drops significantly. This is in part due to a lack of trained female teachers, and the families aren’t letting the girls go and study under male teachers. If there are no female teachers in one village, the family will definitely not let their girls travel to another village because of security concerns."

Drawing attention to another aspect, she said: "Also, if you aren’t married in Afghanistan, that's seen as a problem. If you aren't letting your girls go get married, this will be a shame for your family. Finally, Afghans typically have very large families, from four to sometimes 12 children, even 15. How can they feed their families with only one male in the household working while the rest of the family is spending? Many families decide to just let their girls get married instead of go to school because they don’t have enough resources to feed them."

The Survey, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of the Afghan People is the latest in a series of empirical assessments that The Asia Foundation has conducted across Asia. It was managed working in close collaboration with several Afghan organizations, including Kabul-based Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research (ACSOR) and the Central Statistics Organization of Afghanistan (CSO).

In spite of prevailing doubts about the future of Afghanistan, Fazel Rabi Haqbeen, programme director in the Asia Foundation's Kabul office, points out that for the first time since 2007, respondents in the latest survey cited reconstruction and rebuilding as the most important reason for optimism.

"The level of optimism for reconstruction and rebuilding is high across all 34 provinces, but particularly so in the West, Central/Kabul, South East, South West, and East regions and urban areas. The level of optimism is nearly the same for men and women, as well as all ethnic groups, except Hazara who reported slightly lower figures," says Haqbeen.

Respondents in the 2011 Survey who reported the need for reconstruction as a reason for pessimism is at the lowest level since the Foundation first conducted the survey in 2004, he adds.

"Increased optimism in the area of reconstruction and rebuilding certainly represents a source of hope for Afghanistan's future development," says Haqbeen. But warns: "It will be critical that emphasis on the needs of the country’s citizens be met with even greater focus and commitment in order to regain the trust and confidence of the Afghan people."

The survey highlights a link that respondents perceive between the direction of progress in the country and the ability of government to provide essential services and support for development projects.

A high proportion of respondents praise the availability of clean drinking water (70 percent) and freedom of movement or their ability to move safely in their area or district (70 percent). More than two thirds (69 percent) of respondents say the security situation is quite good or very good in the area where they live.

On the other hand, people are least satisfied with the availability of jobs. More than two thirds (70%) of respondents say the availability of jobs in their local area is quite bad or very bad. Almost two thirds (65%) say the same about the supply of electricity.

Although procurement of electricity is an ongoing focus of President Hamid Karzai's administration, including some success at bringing in electricity from neighboring countries, local potential for greater electricity supply has not been tapped. The delay has resulted in loss of revenue for the country and potential infrastructural construction job opportunities.

"Though findings vary across regions, people who cited the need for reconstruction as a reason for pessimism is now at its lowest level since we first began conducting the survey, in 2004," says Haqbeen highlighting important aspects of the Survey. "The same is true for people who cite unemployment and a poor economy as the biggest problems facing Afghanistan, which both fell to the lowest levels since 2006, suggesting that Afghans view the country's economic situation more favorably than in previous years."

The percentage of people who gave a positive assessment of the availability of jobs in their local area has been rising steadily since 2008, which, according to Haqbeen, is consistent with the fall in those that identify unemployment as a major national problem.

"The most significant improvements concern the financial well-being of households, quality of the food diet, availability of products in the market, and the physical conditions of housing, suggesting that the level of material prosperity is improving for a significant percentage of the Afghan population," Haqbeen adds in a contribution to In Asia. [Global Perspectives]

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