Ritu Sharma

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The one mention of women’s human rights issues during last week’s presidential debate was a brief one. George W. Bush took credit for 10 million voters registered in Afghanistan and added that “41 percent are women.”

And in her brief address to the Republican Party convention, First Lady Laura Bush made a point of speaking about the women of Afghanistan.

“After years of being treated as virtual prisoners in their own homes by the Taliban, the women of Afghanistan are going back to work,” she said, drawing applause from the convention hall in New York City.

But as the Bush campaign woos female voters by reminding them of its attack on Taliban rule, advocates for Afghan women are putting pressure on the U.S. administration ahead of Oct. 9, when the country holds the first election since Taliban leaders were forced to flee the capital three years ago.

Although women’s rights activists cheered the downfall of the Taliban regime and its cruel restrictions on Afghan women, they are increasingly critical of the Bush administration’s policies and say the United States has neglected the women they take credit for liberating.

A group of experts from nongovernmental organizations–including Amnesty International, Save the Children, Women’s Edge Coalition and the Policy Council on Afghan Women–recently charged the Bush administration with failing to deliver sufficient aid and security for Afghan women.

The experts said that “discount nation building” had stranded many women’s aid groups financially and left women vulnerable in anarchic conditions, particularly outside the capital Kabul.

Malaly Volpi, from the Policy Council on Afghan Women in Washington, D.C., echoed warnings by these analysts and aid agencies about the upcoming vote.

Volpi said the elections are being held before conditions are ripe and that many women would be voting in a climate of intimidation and continued patriarchal repression. In many areas, civil servants who are trying to distribute information about voter registration face death threats.

“If a woman can’t speak her mind, how can she exercise her right to vote?” Volpi said.

“The election is being pushed ahead too quickly.”

Concerns for Rural Women

Many women in rural areas still have little or no access to health services, and Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest maternity mortality rates, said Kathryn Bolles, a child-survival specialist with Save the Children.

“Deteriorating security conditions threaten the progress made to date for Afghan women and children. Most of the country outside of Kabul is largely insecure,” Bolles said. “Threats of violence keep families from seeking out critical health services and children from going to school.”

Although schools have re-opened for female pupils and the country’s new constitution sets aside a substantial number of parliamentary seats for women, these critics said women faced severe discrimination and serious threats to their health and safety.

T. Kumar, advocacy director for Amnesty International in the Asia and Pacific region, said women continue to suffer from domestic abuse, sexual violence, deeply patriarchal attitudes, a lack of health services and discriminatory laws.

“Only 50 percent of women are going to school. Women are still raped, abused, brutalized and the entire legal system is against them,” Kumar said.

Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department parried that the U.S. government has done much to improve the lives of Afghan women. Despite a reconstruction effort that faces monumental challenges in a country decimated by years of civil war, they cited an array of U.S.-funded programs, including the building of schools, teacher education, literacy training, health clinics, widows’ bakeries, micro-financing for women’s small businesses and courses for female journalists and filmmakers, which they said are directly affecting women’s lives.

Attack on U.S. Record

Speakers at the Sept. 22 press conference here, however, said progress has been over-stated and criticized the U.S. record on women in Afghanistan.

“While we have seen some gains, particularly in the capital Kabul, Afghan women are really not doing as well as many want to believe,” said Ritu Sharma, executive director of the Washington-based Women’s Edge Coalition, which seeks to promote women’s issues in U.S. foreign policy.

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States–backed by European allies–launched a military assault on the Taliban regime, citing the Taliban’s support and cooperation with the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Since the fall of the Taliban, the Bush administration has deployed approximately 17,000 troops to Afghanistan and European governments in the NATO alliance have contributed 6,500 to the peacekeeping effort.

But the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, United Nations officials and aid organizations have warned the country desperately needs a larger peacekeeping force to counter a resurgent Taliban in the southeast and warlords elsewhere.

A State Department official, who asked not to be named, said it was misleading to imply that Kabul was the only safe area in Afghanistan. While areas in the south where the Taliban has re-emerged were dangerous, other regions were seeing improvements and progress, the official said.

“Large parts of the country are relatively secure and people are going about their daily lives,” the official told Women’s eNews.

Sharma, however, said the Bush administration was failing to respond to the deteriorating security situation with more peacekeeping troops while delivering paltry levels of assistance to Afghan women’s organizations.

“The truth is that Afghan women are in danger of slipping into a sink-hole being created by ongoing violence and lack of funding,” Sharma said.

The State Department official said that the U.S. government fully recognized the importance of bolstering security and was funding the training and arming of a new Afghan army. “That’s something we’re very conscious of and working on very hard,” said the official.

By the spring of 2004, more than 5,000 troops in a new Afghan army had been trained and U.S. officers say a 10,000-strong force will be operational soon.

Volpi, from the Policy Council on Afghan Women, said the international peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan was minuscule. The ratio of peacekeepers to Afghans was 1-to-600, compared to 1-to-61 in Iraq, she said.

Sharma also called on the United States to increase direct funding to Afghan women’s groups.

Over the past three years, less than 3 percent of $2.5 billion in U.S. assistance to Afghanistan has been set aside for Afghan women, according to Sharma. Of the total assistance to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, only .02 percent–about $200,000–has been allocated to Afghan women’s NGOs, according to speakers at the September event.

USAID reports, however, that the United States has directed significant funding towards schools and education, funding accelerated learning initiatives for girls and prospective women teachers. USAID has also spent $2.5 million on women’s resource centers that are supposed to provide a range of practical information on health and jobs for Afghan women.

Dan De Luce was the correspondent for The Guardian in Iran until he was ordered by the authorities Tehran to leave earlier this year. Prior to that, he worked for Reuters during and after the conflict in former Yugoslavia and for the international administration in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For more information:

Women’s Edge Coalition–
Statement by Malay Volpi on Afghan women’s political rights:

Women’s enews–
Afghan Constitution a Partial Victory for Women:

Women’s enews–
Afghan Women Fight for Citizenship: