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GLOBAL | summer 2002

Update from Kabul

Ms. Summer 2002

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George Bush invokes the Marshall Plan of massive aid to Europe following World War II to describe what it will take for the Afghan people to rebuild their country. However, there is much more evidence of need than of US contributions so far, according to a fact-finding team from the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) that visited Kabul recently.

For Afghan women, who have been isolated and barred from public life, the swift rebuilding of schools, hospitals, and other institutions is a pressing need. Even more essential is the presence of peacekeeping forces to provide the security required to repair the social and political fabric of life.

From highly placed ministers to people in the streets, Kabul citizens told the FMF representatives how dangerous the situation was, particularly with the political maneuvering leading to the June meeting of the Loya Jirga, the grand council that will choose a government to replace Afghanistan's interim administration. There is a pervasive underlying fear that the United States will abandon Afghanistan, as it has done in the past. At press time, the Bush Administration had refused to commit to a more permanent peacekeeping effort, planning to rely instead on training an Afghan security force, which could take a year and a half.

Photo of Afghan girls"Afghan women and girls are in the most precarious position. They've been the ones who have been most victimized," said Norma Gattsek, FMF deputy director of policy and programs, describing what she saw in Kabul. Also on the team were two native Afghans, Kamran Khairzad, an engineer in Los Angeles, and Sara Amiryar, a Georgetown Univerity administrator and advocate for human rights in Afghanistan, as well as Helen Cho, a member of the IMF board.

Minister of Women's Affairs Sima Samar had recently moved into her office compound when she met with the FMF representatives. Previously, she had worked out of home. During the meeting, women appeared asking for help in fin jobs. Samar insisted on housing her ministry at the former Afghan Women's Institute in Kabul, an educational center that had existed for 46 years before the Taliban shut it down. The renovations there demonstrate piecemeal efforts Afghans must confront without the help they need. One floor was being cleaned and painted the United Nations Development Program, another by US Aid for International Development (USAID). In time for activities scheduled on International Women's Day, USAID spent several thousand dollars to clean the rubble out of a roofless structure that been a theater in the compound. World Bank has also pledged money refurbish the ministry.

"One positive sign of rebuilding is renovation of a media center funded by a UNESCO grant," reported Gattsek. In an office at that center, Jamila Mujahed and a small staff were preparing third issue of Malalai, a woman's political and cultural magazine founded this year. Featuring pages in both Dari and Pashto, the two dominant Afghan languages, and a short section in English, the magazine is distributed to an audience that was denied basic information and the opportunity to communicate freely during the five years of Taliban rule. The second issue contained a short history of International Women's Day-which was observed this year in Kabul with meetings and celebrations. The issue also included descriptions of street life, a report on Kabul radio, and an eclectic mix of poems, stories, cartoons, and recipes.

A mobile media center is producing educational videos for distribution to 200 locations around the country. The videos present much needed information on maternal and child health, but also include a section on the meeting of the Loya Jirga. A minimum of 11 percent of the seats is reserved for women, and the media project designed the videos to encourage women from all parts of the country to run for election or seek appointment to the Loya Jirga.

A major accomplishment of the interim government has been opening the schools, which under the Taliban were closed to girls. Gattsek visited a girls' high school. "The students are so happy to be back that they'll take two buses, which they can't afford," she said, "or walk an hour or more to get to class. The classroom is bare, with a concrete floor, and the teenagers sit on their burkas to keep warm," a reference to the ubiquitous blue garments that still cover women from head to toe as they walk through Kabul.

Waranga Safi, the deputy minister of education, had been the first woman to go out on the streets without her burka after the Taliban fell. "It was planned as an action by a group of women," said Gattsek, who interviewed Safi. "The rest of them backed out, but she said, 'I'm going.' She made a point of saying there was no negative reaction, that even men in cars stopped to tell her how brave she was."

Gattsek estimated that some 10 percent of Kabul women now dare to be seen in public without the burka, behavior that Taliban enforcers punished with a beating or worse. To be on the safe side, most continue to use the garment, but they are discarding the soft shoes and dark stockings that the Taliban required. "They wear platforms and sandals, with fishnet socks and painted toenails," said Gattsek. "They're out and they're working."