Women's voices must be heard in reconstruction of Afghanistan

November 30, 2001|By Mary Diaz

NEW YORK - Afghan women desperately need public figures like Laura Bush and Cherie Blair to speak out about abuse and oppression in their homeland.

After all, the Western world has spent the last 20 years largely ignoring the plight of Afghanistan's second-tier citizens. But if the White House and Downing Street are serious about supporting the rights of Afghan women, the discussion needs to move beyond First Lady rhetoric. Afghan women need to be made a priority in the debating chambers and in the military command centers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Crucially, the United States and its allies must ensure security and protection for Afghan women leaders if they are to take part in the peace talks and the political processes that will lead to a new government for Afghanistan. For their voices to be heard, women leaders need to be identified and included in any political discussions and in any reconstruction process, but they will need to be reassured that they can participate without risking retaliation.

The oppression of women pre-dates the Taliban and has left some women frightened to speak out. The Northern Alliance has a less-than-impressive track record on women's rights, and some of its more brutal factions have been responsible for mass rape, looting and violence over the last few years of attack and counter-attack against Taliban-held territory.

And yet despite the risks, Afghan women have struggled for many years to provide health care and education inside Afghanistan and in the refugee camps of Pakistan.

In return they were beaten, lashed and threatened with public execution. They ignored the bullets in the mail, the name-calling and the threats, and continued to teach girls - and boys - often in secret. These brave women, many of whom are the sole adult caring for children and elderly relatives, must be allowed to continue their humanitarian work, but they, too, will need the reassurance of adequate security to protect them from violence.

Of course, this is not just about women. Afghan men must also be included or the whole process will be nothing more than a public relations exercise. Men have quietly been supporting women and girls, for example, sending their daughters to school.

And this is not just about Afghanistan. Honor killings, the selling of girl brides as young as 12 and other abuses are not unknown in Pakistan and other countries in the region. These abuses should be recognized and condemned as such by the "Six-Plus-Two" group (China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, the United States and Uzbekistan) and other nations involved in brokering peace in Afghanistan.

Ms. Bush and Ms. Blair have taken an important step in recognizing the rights of Afghan women by speaking out publicly on oppression and abuse. Let's now hope that their husbands will turn their protest into action by overcoming prejudices about the capabilities of Afghan women and providing the security that they need to continue their humanitarian and political work.

As one Afghan woman refugee told the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, "Just because we wear a veil does not mean we don't have a voice."

Mary Diaz is executive director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

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