UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--Afghan women gathered for the 53rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, taking place March 2 to 13, had some progress to report and celebrate.
Two million girls are now attending school in a country where, from 1994 to 2001, the Taliban banned girls' participation in the education system.
A quarter of seats are held by women in the parliament elected after the Taliban were removed from power in 2001 in a U.S.-led military operation.
On March 8, International Women's Day, while an estimated 15,000 women prayed for peace in public spaces across Afghanistan, lawmaker Shalah Attah in Kabul announced her candidacy for the presidential race, tentatively scheduled for a vote in August 2009.
But beneath the pieces of good news some participants in the U.N. meeting worried about the re-emergence of the Taliban in their country seven years after the end of its official 1996-2001 grip on power.
The Afghan government has reanimated talks with the Taliban. That seriously worries Wazhma Frog, country director for Global Rights Afghanistan, a human rights advocacy group with offices in Kabul.
'Good Taliban, Bad Taliban'
"My government is now talking about the 'good Taliban, the bad Taliban, the moderate Taliban,'" said Frog. "We need to determine who the 'good Taliban' is and how this affects women."
As the new U.S. leadership under President Barack Obama reviews its Afghanistan strategy and considers talks with the Taliban, Afghan women need to be consulted, Wenny Kusuma, UNIFEM's country director in Afghanistan, told Women's eNews.
"We are very concerned that negotiations not be at the cost of women," said Kusuma. "The treatment of women was central to the Taliban's system of government. The question is how their treatment of women in the past will bear on the future?"
She warned of an increasing tolerance of public violence against women, with rape, group rapes, forced marriage and self-immolation on the rise.
Over 87 percent of all women suffer from domestic abuse, making Afghanistan one of the most dangerous parts of the world to be a woman, according to UNIFEM.
Suraya Pakzad is founder of Voice of Women Organization, a Herat-based charity that came out of secrecy in 2001 and works on the frontlines of protecting women and girls.
During the Taliban phase of control, Pakzad provided underground education to girls in private homes and created safe havens for mothers fleeing domestic violence.
Forced Marriage Common
Now she works in the northwestern provinces of Herat, Badghis and Gor, areas neglected by the government and facing increased poverty and insecurity. Forced child marriage and self-immolation, she says, remain very common there.
In Herat, Pakzad rents a house and runs a shelter with a floating population of 35 to 42 women and girls fleeing from family violence.
Since 2006, the shelter--one of five in the country--has reintegrated 300 women and girls into society. Only two of them returned.
The minors she harbors are typically runaways from forced marriages, which represent 60 to 80 percent of all marriages in Afghanistan, according to the Kabul-based Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Agency.
She has received girls as young as 9 and 11 married to men in their 40s and 50s. Counselors at the center try to arbitrate between the father and extended relatives to reintegrate the child into the family. There is not enough room or resources at the shelter to keep the child brides indefinitely.
"We do not have enough budget for them," she said at a United Nations forum. "We have $1 per case."
She said that many women's high-profile advances at the government level are symbolic. "The women's ministry was created as a gift," she said at a forum. "The rest are just talking about women's rights. They are not going to implement. It is just a theory on paper. Civil society is on the front line."
Public Attacks on Women
The Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, established an era of severe restrictions for women, banning them from work and requiring them to be fully covered in the burka. Women accused of adultery were stoned to death in stadiums and faced imprisonment if they abandoned their husbands or ran away from abuse.
In recent months, the country has witnessed the resurgence of the Taliban and public attacks on women. Recent incidents include the assassination of Malali Kakar, the most senior female police officer in Afghanistan, as well as a series of acid attacks and kidnappings on girls seeking to attend school, coupled with death threats to their teachers.
The ambush and murder of International Rescue Committee staff in the outskirts of Kabul last August and the targeting of World Food Program trucks have added to the general sense of insecurity.
Since last May, Kusuma says, UNIFEM's activities have been scaled back for security reasons, with more missions requiring costly armored vehicles.
Kusuma says that since the Taliban actively recruits young men into their ranks offering them monetary incentives and services, it is doubly important to support women's rights during elections.
"Those young men who are being recruited will be voting," she said. "We need to get out the women's vote. We need to balance this out with women's voices."
A central problem is the lack of law enforcement and protection for women, says Pakzad. Although she herself receives regular death threats, the local chief of police told her that he did not have the manpower to station a guard at night.
Girls have difficulty reaching her shelter, she said. Neighbors are not trained to report forced marriage even if it is a crime punishable by two years of imprisonment. By law, a 16-year-old female teen can marry an 18-year-old male. The Afghan parliament rejected a proposal to change the girl's age to 18.
Part of the problem, said Pakzad, is the prevalence of customary law, which at times contradicts even Islam.
"When there is no father, the father's relatives are authorized to marry girls under 16 years old if it is in the benefit of the child," she said. "No one describes the benefit of the child."
Some of the activities taking place in rural areas, she added, including adoption and the exchange of daughters as dowry payment, violate Islam.
Even when the law is enforced, she warned, it takes a long time to change mentality.
It took her--a mother of six children--a couple of years after the Taliban fell to feel comfortable enough to stop wearing the burka. The problem, she says, is a generation that was born and raised in the war without witnessing the women's movement.
"From 1970 to 1990 women enjoyed more freedom than today," she said. "In 1990 women used to drive the public bus. Now we can't drive our own car. Culturally I can't do that because it will affect my NGO, my children."
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.