Afghan Women Still Not Free

Afghan women wearing burqa shop in market, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, 9-1-02
Rumbles of discontent on the situation in Afghanistan are being heard from Kabul to London and even in Washington, D.C., where National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice is shaking up the U.S. approach to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

According to the New York Times, a task force controlled by Rice will take over the responsibility for the rebuilding and stabilization of Afghanistan - a job until now run by the State Department.

President Bush however is unhappy over slow progress in Afghanistan, where Taliban-linked violence has been on the rise and a key highway has stalled, and the shift of control to Rice - one of his top advisers - reflects that.

More pressure on the administration to get more done in Afghanistan is coming from London, where the human rights group Amnesty International is out with a sharply critical report.

Amnesty International says the plight of many Afghan women has barely improved in the two years since the ouster of the Taliban regime, with forced marriages, rapes and domestic violence still occurring frequently.

The report accuses the international community of failing to do enough in Afghanistan, where most women are still cloistered at home and wear body-shrouding burkas in public.

The ultraconservative Taliban regime, which was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, had banned women from working and girls from school. The Afghan government has since lifted those restrictions, but in rural areas where it has little authority many women still cannot work or girls be educated.

"Nearly two years on, discrimination, violence, and insecurity remain rife, despite promises by world leaders, including (U.S.) President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, that the war in Afghanistan would bring liberation for women," the report said.

It added: "The situation is unacceptable and calls for urgent action."

Entitled "Afghanistan: No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings. Justice denied to women," the report documents instances of widespread violence, forced marriage and rape.

In some cases, Amnesty said, girls as young as 8-years-old are married to much older men.

In August, the group said that women were being discriminated against, with the system "failing to protect victims of rape, domestic violence and forced underage marriage."

"Girls and women are being prosecuted for engaging in consensual sexual activity - in some areas, the police randomly pick up girls and women and subject them to forced virginity tests," the group said then.

The latest report comes shortly before the release of a draft constitution, which the writers say will try to revolutionize the way women are treated in this devoutly Muslim country.

The document will ban forced marriages, bridal dowries and other forms of discrimination. It will guarantee women a political voice by giving them the right to vote and reserving them seats in Parliament, and will enshrine equal health care and education for all.

However, the government's ability to enforce the constitution is limited. President Hamid Karzai has little authority outside the capital, Kabul, where most areas are ruled by warlords with private militias.

Amnesty urged the international community to do more to integrate the protection of women's rights into the reconstruction of police, legal reforms, and the establishment of courts.

"Women's rights protections cannot be meaningfully established without the rule of law," the report said.

The group said women have little recourse to justice because of social barriers. Even when a woman is able to approach the police or the courts, she faces extreme discrimination.

"The current criminal justice system is simply unwilling or unable to address issues of violence against women," it said. "At the moment it is more likely to violate the rights of women than to protect and uphold their rights."

Amnesty called for an expansion into rural areas of the 5,500-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force that currently only patrols Kabul, "to create an environment in which the rule of law can be established."

NATO leaders in Brussels are currently reviewing plans to deploy forces to other cities in Afghanistan but a final decision is yet to be made.