Sahira Sharif KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Sahira Sharif sits with Zabah, the youngest of her four children on her lap. He is 3 and a half years old, but looks much younger. The child suffers from Down’s syndrome, says Sharif, with no trace of self-consciousness.

It is a matter of fact–along with cooking, shopping, teaching her children, taking them to and from school–in addition to her work as one of Afghanistan’s first female parliamentarians.

During the session, debates can begin as early as 8:30 or 9 a.m. and go on all day, sometimes late into the evening five days a week. But there are no concessions to her traditional women’s duties, no extra help. Sharif is virtually a single parent since her husband lives in Khost where he has a government job.

This week the newly constituted Afghan parliament marks its first anniversary on Dec. 19 and Sharif completes the first year of her five-year term.

In what is left of her tenure, she hopes to introduce legislation to ban forced marriages, which the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission estimates as 38 percent of all marriages in the country.

Another female member of the Afghan Parliament, Fawzia Kofi, the second deputy chair of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house, hopes a law will be adopted to empower police to investigate suicides and domestic violence without having to refer to a complaint by the victim or the victim’s family. Kofi says the family may be complicit in the violence and the victim reluctant to make a complaint.

In the past year 197 cases of suicide were attempted in Herat province, of which 69 were successful, the country’s human rights commission reports. Many have been linked to domestic abuse. In Kandahar, 200 women tried to escape from abusive homes.

But whatever their legislative hopes and ambitions, female parliamentarians such as Sharif and Kofi say their first year in office leaves them prepared for more rough times ahead.

Security Problems Take Toll

The country’s national security is deteriorating.

A week ago, Afghan police arrested six Taliban insurgents suspected of killing two female teachers along with three other relatives, according to press reports quoting Afghan and NATO officials. The killings come on top of attacks on aid workers, government officials and intensifying clashes between international forces and the Taliban.

Amid these dangers, female parliamentarians have made fewer trips out of the capital city of Kabul back home to their constituencies.

Sharifa Zurmati Wardak

Sharif–who until two months ago traveled without a burka to her province of Khost–has started wearing one recently and avoids staying too long in any one area. Anyone associated with the government is at risk, she says. Not only the Taliban but commanders and political factions that have lost power are potentially dangerous.

Sharifa Zurmati Wardak, represents Paktia, a conservative Pashtun constituency in the southeastern part of the country bordering Pakistan where many women never step out of their homes for any reason whatsoever. She does not travel without a male escort.

Afghanistan’s new constitution, adopted in 2004, requires that two women be elected from each of its 34 provinces. With a current strength of 248 this puts the representation of women at just over 25 percent, ahead of many legislative bodies. Internationally, 30 percent is considered the minimum for any group to leverage its representation.

Last year 19 of the 68 female parliamentarians won enough votes to have been elected even without any special mandate.

Year of Anti-Woman Debates

While providing one of the widest spaces in the country for women’s participation in public life, the Parliament in the past year has debated a number of anti-women measures.

Members have discussed whether female parliamentarians should be required to have a "mehram," or male escort, when traveling outside the country.

Despite constitutional provisions for gender equality and laws that stipulate 18 as the minimum legal age for marriage, the upper house of Parliament wants it lowered to 15. Fearing the effect on young women in forced marriages, a number of female members have been battling the push, which would require passage in the lower house to become law.

Women have been unable to close ranks against a move to abolish the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which was formed in 2001 as an advisory group to help rebuild women’s rights lost under the Taliban. So far the ministry has survived, although women themselves were split over the issue, with some women siding with their own male-led factions and debate over eliminating the ministry may reopen.

"Women stand against other women," says Sharif.

Efforts to Erode Representation

Women’s 25-percent representation is itself insecure.

Abdul Salaam Rocketi–his last name was acquired due to his prowess with rocket launchers–is a former Taliban commander. Now representing Zabul in Parliament, he calls the reservation of seats for women "undemocratic."

Efforts to build a women’s caucus are going slowly.

UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, has set up a resource center stocked with documents and books and research materials pertaining to Afghanistan and political issues. The center has phone lines and Internet access to aid interaction and information gathering.

The National Democratic Institute, a U.S. civil-society nonprofit, has been organizing workshops to help bring women together to discuss their common concerns and a recent meeting focused on violence against women. But the female parliamentarians are far too politically divided to realistically discuss the creation of a formal caucus.

Despite the numerous hurdles and disappointments of the past year, Wardak says the presence of women in the Parliament has nonetheless encouraged debate on issues that might otherwise have been ignored. Female parliamentarians, for instance, visited a women’s prison and were upset by some of the conditions they discovered. Wardak and Sharif said that as a result of their interventions female inmates are now allowed to have visits from their children and pregnant women are getting better medical attention.

"We are there," Wardak says. "Our voices exist."

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 16 years and she has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict development in Punjab extensively.

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