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DEVELOPMENT-ASIA: Non-Aligned Movement Takes on New Social Role

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, May 10 2005 (IPS) - Most women in Afghanistan don’t get a chance to grow old, Massouda Jalal told the elegantly dressed delegates at the inaugural Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Ministerial Meeting on Woman and Empowerment that ended here on Tuesday. ”Many of them are dead before they reach old age,” she added.

Massouda, the minister for women’s affairs in Afghanistan, shocked delegates with her grim description of the plight of women in her war battered country after the U.S. toppled the Taliban government in late 2001 and set up a ‘democracy’.

”The average lifespan of Afghan women is only 44 years. Women die early because of lack of medical care especially during childbirth,” she said. The minister also said many women were killed in numerous local conflicts, adding that extreme poverty also took numerous lives.

”On average 1,900 mothers out of 100,000 die during childbirth and the number of infant deaths is about 6,500 out of 100,000 births,” she said.

”Every day we lose 70 mothers and 700 children due to the lack of health services,” she told shocked delegates from over 114 countries.

Over three years after Taliban rule nearly 60 percent of girls still do not go to school and 70 percent of all families are mired in extreme poverty.

”We hope NAM countries will help us,” pleaded the Afghan minister. ”Our people need help…please help us with development programmes.”

That NAM itself is becoming a forum to hear pleas from ministers like Massouda, is history in the making.

The Kuala Lumpur meeting showed that for the first time in its 44-year existence, the Non- Aligned Movement had shifted its attention from merely politics to social issues.

NAM was set up in 1961 at the height of Cold War out of fear of a nuclear holocaust perceived as the eventual outcome of the conflict between the U.S.-led Western bloc and the Soviet-led Eastern bloc. However, the end of the Cold War had left NAM with a big question mark about its way forward.

The conference theme, ‘Empowering Women in Facing the Challenges of Globalisation’, reflected the drive in NAM to find new relevance.

Ministers and representatives from about 80 NAM member states attended the meet that was opened by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi who urged the world to focus on the ravages of HIV/AIDS among children and women and the plight of Muslim women whose downtrodden and exploitative state, he said, had remain unchanged or made worse by ignorance, Islamic fundamentalism and the forces of globalisation.

Abdullah is currently chairman of NAM and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, an inter-governmental organisation grouping 56 states.

At the close of the NAM ministerial meeting, participants passed the Putrajaya Declaration – a blueprint for empowering women that includes concrete actions and programmes to help uplift women in member countries.

Malaysia has also proposed a NAM Centre on Gender and Development to enhance women’s empowerment. The centre could work closely with policymakers, scholars, research centres and other interested groups to stimulate intellectual discussions, promote the exchange of ideas and become a centre for capacity building for women.

The discussion on HIV/AIDS figured prominently in the ministerial meeting with Asian delegates querying Africans on their experience in combating the menace.

”We gave a lot of attention to HIV/AIDS because Malaysia and other Asian countries have a lot to learn from our African counterparts,” said Shahrizat Jalil, Malaysia’s minister for women, family and community development. ”HIV/AIDS and women’s empowerment is very important…just look at the alarming figures.”

The World Health Organisation estimated last year that over 20 million women globally were living with HIV/AIDS.

Malaysian AIDS Council president Marina Mahathir urged NAM members to ”really and truly” work to empower women in their societies to combat the deadly disease.

”The empowerment of women is not simply a recommendation to protect them from HIV and AIDS. Real empowerment would ensure women and young girls were able to make their own life choices independently and safely, thus lending them the power to protect themselves from the epidemic,” she said.

”The time to take action is not tomorrow or next year but now,” Marina said. ”Every second of hesitation can mean death to our citizens, especially for our women.”

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and a source of migrant workers, called for national plans and multi-sectoral strategies to combat human trafficking.

East Timor, the smallest and least developed NAM member country, also sought help in many sectors.

A report presented to the ministerial meeting stated that knowledge about HIV/AIDS is poor in the world’s newest nation

”Available data also suggests that gender-based violence, especially domestic violence is serious and widespread, affecting both women and children,” the report added.

Another major challenge facing East Timorese women is the traditional patriarchal social system, which gives older men the power of decision-making.

The report also revealed that women in the island-nation, which became independent from Indonesia in May 2002, were discriminated against in land inheritance laws. ”This hinders women’s access to and control over assets,” said the report.

The problems faced by giant Indonesia, war battered Afghanistan and tiny East Timor are all different. But common thread is that they all hope NAM will come to their aid.

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