1 April 2006

All aboard the Afghan bus

By Marguerite Finn

Up to very recently, Afghan women were among the most disadvantaged on the planet. As one cruel joke put it: In Afghanistan, women never grow old. Why? Because Afghan women's life expectancy is only 42.5 years, one of the lowest in the world.

Deep-rooted cultural traditions have helped fashion a society where only 14% of women are literate, compared with 50% of men. Statistics show that those women who do work, are paid only half as much as their male counterparts. Up to 80% of marriages are arranged without the consent of the bride, and maternal mortality rates in some parts of Afghanistan are the highest ever recorded. According to UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), 600 children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases. Fifty women die every day from obstetric complications, out of a total population of 28 million people. Only 40 per cent of girls attend primary school.

And that is not all. Picture, if you will, a queue of Afghan women waiting for a bus. Here comes the bus – but it doesn’t stop. Buses speed straight past, if there are only women waiting at the bus stop; at other times, men barge past the women to board the bus. This is a regular occurrence in the life of an Afghan woman.

Massouda Jalal, Minister of Women's Affairs in AfghanistanThere are some encouraging signs that the outlook for women is improving. A 'Ministry of Women's Affairs' was established in 2001, creating a national programme for women and tying it into the government's national strategy. Sima Samar, the first woman to head up the Ministry, now chairs the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Her successor, Habiba Sorabi, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai as Governor of the Bamian province – the first woman in Afghanistan to be elevated to such a post. The Ministry of Women's Affairs is now run by Massouda Jalal (pictured left), a former UN worker and qualified paediatrician. She takes a long-term approach to improving women's lives. Over the next 10 years, if her policies are implemented, all girls under the age of five will be vaccinated against a range of diseases; sixty to seventy per cent of girls will attend school; Maternal mortality will fall by fifteen per cent and the number of female teachers will increase by fifty per cent.

The Ministry for Women also encourages women to run for parliament and provincial councils and to form women’s councils and associations throughout the country. Nevertheless, critics say that the pace of change is too slow and that the Afghan government does not take the Ministry seriously. The All-Afghan Women's Union pointed out that last year the Ministry's budget was approximately $4 million – out of the government's overall spending plan of $632 million. With this level of governmental support, they fear the Ministry will not achieve any real progress within the next 40 years! Massouda Jalal is not so easily discouraged. "If we work together to make the situation better, it will take two or three decades," she said. "If we don't, it will take two or three centuries."

Set against a background of continuing political chaos, the modest achievements of the women's ministry are quite remarkable. One way it has managed to speed things up is by working with outside agencies such as UNIFEM. This month, the benefits of such co-operation resulted in a better deal for women travelling on Afghanistan's public buses. By the end of this year, at least 30% of seats on all public buses in Afghanistan will be reserved for women, under the UN-backed programme. It all happened when the Minister for Women, the Deputy Minister of Transport and the Programme Director of UNIFEM, all got together and signed a Memorandum of Understanding, promoting a positive attitude among public transport staff and male passengers towards women passengers. Implementation of the Memorandum will be monitored by the independent Afghan Women's Network. A hot-line will be set up to take complaints and disciplinary action will be taken against staff who fail to observe the new directive.

The UN says that this iniative is in line with the benchmarks spelt out in the Afghanistan Compact – a UN-backed blueprint for international engagement in the development of Afghanistan over the next five years - and with the Afghan Government’s commitments to promote gender equality.

In February 2006, UNIFEM launched a pilot project in Afghanistan which aims to record cases of violence against women in a comprehensive database, which will be used to analyse trends, identify gaps in nation-wide response mechanisms and to determine strategies to tackle the issue.

For further information, see http://www.unifem.org/ or phone UNIFEM-UK: 0207-201-9987.