Ann Pettifor and Georgia Lee were honoured to organise the visit to London last week of the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Afghan Government, Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar.
The Hon. Minister was in London to brief the media, British Government Ministers and Shadow Cabinet members of the achievements of her Ministry for Women’s Affairs in Kabul, and of the Ministry’s priorities and challenges. Dr. Ghazanfar is proud of the 37% increase in girls attending school since her Ministry was formed in 2001, and of the 25% ratio of women in the Afghan Parliament – higher than in Britain, where women make up 22% of the UK Parliament.
The Minister gave a series of media interviews; had meetings with British Government Ministers, as well as members of the Shadow Cabinet, and made presentations to a range of think-tanks, including Chatham House and Queen Elizabeth House in Oxford.
Homa Khaleeli of the Guardian drew on Minister Ghazanfar’s statements in her comprehensive article ‘Afghan women fear for the future’ published on Friday 4th February.
“Deniz Kandiyoti of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ gender studies department disputes these claims that the culture is to blame. “These people have been tossed to the wind and displaced, the old society has been eroded. Girls being given away to pay for opium debts, that’s hardly traditional. Now it is the people with the guns, the money, and the drugs runners who have power,” she says.
Today, according to Salbi, who has testified before the US senate, there is little appetite among US politicians for protecting women in the region, despite support from the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Instead, she says: “There is a clear, clear opinion that women’s rights were a) not that relevant and b) irreconcilable with peace in Afghanistan.”
Samira Hamidi, director of the Afghan Women’s Network – an umbrella organisation for more than 600 women’s rights groups and NGOs – has also noticed this increasing lack of interest and fears that once the troops pull out, the west will turn its eyes away from Afghanistan, even though “the insurgents still kill children, they still put poison in the food of school girls, they throw acid in the face of school girls, they burn schools. They still exist.”
“Something most American male politicians have said – 90% of them – is that it’s just their culture and we can’t do anything about it,” adds Salbi.
Few would argue that improvements have been made in women’s rights in the last decade. On a recent visit to the UK, Hussan Ghazanfar, Afghanistan’s minister for women’s affairs, outlined the progress made: 57% of women and girls now go to school, and 24% of health sector workers and 10% of the judiciary are female.
Yet activists say improvements are patchy and far from ideal – with healthcare, social care and freedom unavailable to many poverty-stricken rural women, many already living in Taliban-controlled areas. Even Ghazanfar admits: “Life is different in the countryside – the literacy level is different, traditional customs are stronger, and women have no financial or economic freedom there.”
Hamidi says most women she speaks to “are tired of war and killing”, and fearful of the future. “If the situation goes bad again the women here have nowhere to go.”