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Afghan women fear a retreat to dark days

Negotiating with the Taliban might be the only hope for peace, but women are nervous.

By Gayle TzemachCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 2008

Shaky gains: A Herat gym offers Afghan women a place to workout. The highly segregated nation offers few public spaces for women.

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Afghanistan's Minister of Women's Affairs, Hasan Bano Ghazanfa, closed a recent speech to one of the country's largest-ever women's conferences with an unexpected warning: Afghan President Hamid Karzai should avoid rushing into "political deals" with those opposing women's rights and human rights.

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The pointed reference to a possible peace deal with the Taliban was a reminder of the precarious situation of Afghan women.

Seven years after the Taliban regime was ousted, Afghan women have seen gains in areas from political rights to education. But many now see this progress as both meager and tenuous.

The possibility of a political settlement with the Taliban – which might return some of their members to government – has sparked nervous questions among women, who fear their concerns will be ignored and their rights overrun once more: Would Taliban officials agree to the new Constitution's guarantee of equal rights for women? Could women's lives improve if the men who banned them from schools and offices joined the government? Would women be safer?

Though a lack of security remains the largest threat to their progress, women still face challenges accessing healthcare, the legal system, and schools. Girls account for only one-third of school pupils. Few females hold political positions of real power. And in the economic arena, women still struggle to move beyond low-margin handicrafts businesses.

Development officials plead for patience; improving women's lives in this poor and traditional country destroyed by decades of war will take generations, they say.

A growing number of Afghan women say the development process is far removed from their needs, and hampered by foreign donors' focus on short-term wins.

"We don't do sustainable work for women," says Fauzia Kufi, a female parliamentarian from the northeastern province of Badakhshan. "One NGO runs a poultry project for women for six months, another goes to a different region for nine months; there is no sustainability to the effort."

The few women now succeeding in business risk becoming targets for criminals, just as businessmen now are. One Kabul entrepreneur's thriving business was recently surrounded by gunmen, who then kidnapped her son. Her family fled Afghanistan following her son's escape.

At the same time, women have enjoyed constitutional protections, plus a ministry dedicated to their advancement. More than a quarter of Afghanistan's parliamentarians are women. A woman now governs the northern province of Bamiyan. Millions of girls are in school.

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