BRUSSELS, Belgium (WOMENSENEWS)–That the demands of the 50 Afghan women meeting in Brussels are so basic shows just how devastating the impact of more than 20 years of war has been on Afghanistan’s people–especially its women and children.

They met at the same time as world leaders were meeting in Bonn to reach understandings about a transitional Afghan government.

The so-called “Brussels Proclamation”–the result of the three-day summit organized by women’s groups worldwide–calls for schools to be reopened by March, along with the staff and supplies to make them function; the right for women to vote and the re-establishment of health care centers and health insurance. There are other demands, too: that women lawyers help draft the new constitution; that women be included in the Loya Jirga, or future national assembly; that they be protected from forced marriages and sexual harassment.

“Afghan women will no longer wait. We have waited for 22 years,” said Sima Wali, a native of Afghanistan who now lives in the United States and is a prominent activist working on behalf of women refugees. “We’re demanding we have a seat at these tables where peace is being negotiated and where programming and funding is being disseminated and talked about.”

Wali went to Brussels from Germany, where she was one of a handful of women delegates participating in the Bonn negotiations. She called the Bonn agreement–with its inclusion of two women in the post-Taliban administration and the creation of an Afghan Women’s Affairs Ministry–a “positive step.”

One of the reasons Afghan men were able to reach an agreement at all, said Wali, is that the world was watching. That, and the money. “The fact that there was going to be large amounts of assistance coming into Afghanistan,” said Wali, “was another issue that helped the men from the various political viewpoints move forward very quickly.”

International Spotlight and Donations Aid Cause of Women

The women who attended this week’s summit, meeting in the gleaming headquarters of the European Parliament, are hoping that the same two pressures–the spotlight and the money–help keep them on the agenda as the Bonn agreement becomes reality. Some European Parliament members, the first politicians to be presented with the demands, took up the rallying call last Thursday at the summit’s end, saying future economic assistance to Afghanistan should be conditioned on the funding of projects that address women’s concerns–from health care to education to children.

“This time we shouldn’t miss that possibility as we did in the Balkans,” Maj. Britt Theorin, chair of the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee, told the delegates. “We got your message very clear. We’re behind you, we’ll help you, and we’ll put the pressure on the men.”

Parliament member Emma Bonino, calling herself “a sister in some way who can be loyal and frank,” brought up the potentially thorny issue of the separation of religion and politics, saying the two should be “de-linked.” She added, “Religion is such an important human rights issue. Refuse that it be used for political power.”

Wali agreed. “It’s a process we need to start if we’re talking about a democratic and tolerant Afghan society,” she said. “We need to make sure that religion is not used again to suppress the Afghan people as it has been done in the past. … It’s not the fault of Islam. It was really the fault of the Taliban.”

During the week, Afghan women recounted their stories of life under the Taliban. Shafiqa Habibi, a broadcast journalist in Kabul until the Taliban came to power in 1996, remembered being told to wear a burka and stay at home. “After the Taliban arrived, my rights were taken away from me,” she said. “I would like to go back to my country with the result of a better future and to assure women that we will have better lives.”

No one at the summit had any illusions that including women in the new Agham power systems would be easy. International pressure needs to stay focused, they said. The Parliament members hearing the women Thursday are representatives of countries that are still bombing Afghanistan, and most here agreed that the destruction must stop before rebuilding can begin.

Cluster bombs need to be cleared, and first and foremost, said the Afghan women, people need food, shelter and clothing.

“We are starving,” said one. A delegation of Afghan women is expected to take that message and its demands to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.N. Security Council in the coming weeks.

Lauren Comiteau is a free-lance writer in The Hague.

For more information:

Refugee Women in Development Inc.:

The European Women’s Lobby:

Brussels Proclamation: