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Bill Would Aid Afghan Women Caught in U.S.-led War

Cléo Fatoorehchi

NEW YORK, Feb 22 2011 (IPS) - As conflict continues to rage in Afghanistan, the U.S. Congress is gearing up to debate a bill that could support the country’s long-oppressed women in their struggle to achieve gender equality, even in the years after the U.S. military occupation ends.

Though the Afghan Women Empowerment Act has languished through two sessions of Congress, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney does not want to give up on what she sees as a “(U.S.) obligation to ensure that women and girls have the opportunities that they were denied under the Taliban” – namely their rights to work, education and healthcare.

Amending the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002, this Act would provide 45 million dollars to the Afghan president, charging him to distribute the amount amongst three entities: the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs (five million dollars), the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (10 million dollars), and the grassroots Afghan women-led non-profit organisations (30 million dollars).

Through such legislation, the U.S. would continue to impact Afghan society even after the total withdrawal of its military forces, which is planned for the end of 2014, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed on Feb. 18 in a speech at the Asia Society in New York.

Rep. Maloney told IPS “the funding that would be made available under this bill would be directed toward important needs including medical care, education, vocational training, legal assistance, protection against trafficking, and civil participation.”

“I absolutely believe the Afghan Women Empowerment Act would improve the lives of Afghan women and children,” she said.

But Ann Wright, a former U.S. Army colonel who resigned to protest the Iraq war in 2003 and has since become a prominent peace activist, argues that there is a serious problem with the plan.

“All the funding in the world won’t help as long as there continues to be fighting,” Wright told IPS.

While U.S. funding has been crucial to the country’s reconstruction efforts, Wright stressed to IPS that many projects would be negated by the Taliban’s ongoing opposition to the occupation.

She said a school built recently with U.S. funds was likely to “become a target for Taliban and other groups to burn down, just because they don’t like what the USA is doing.”

She is joined on this issue by Malalai Joya, an Afghan activist who was suspended from the Parliament in 2007 for accusing the country’s current parliamentarians, many of them former warlords, of continued corruption and violence in the fledgling democratic state.

In an interview with news programme Democracy Now! in 2009, Joya also outlined her doubts that Afghanistan could democratise while occupied by the U.S., arguing that it was “impossible to bring democracy, women rights, human rights” during a time of war.

“We are ready to build our country, if the USA and its allies let us a little bit breathe in peace,” Joya said.

“They (the Americans) say women for the first time do not wear burqa and are free, while it’s a big lie. And today, most of women are wearing burqa because of security,” she said.

Wright’s December 2010 trip to Afghanistan made her more pessimistic, as she witnessed a “tremendous construction project for the U.S. military,” adding to over 400 U.S. military bases already spread across Afghanistan.

More worrying are the ongoing negotiations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama to establish permanent U.S. military bases on Afghan soil.

According to Wright, the proposed economic commitment to maintain U.S. soldiers in the country would detract from money that could be otherwise channelled to the Afghan people for reconstruction.

“It costs over one million dollars per U.S. soldier (per year) to keep a soldier there,” she said. “The huge amounts of money that the USA and other governments are giving, they say for Afghanistan, are not for the people of Afghanistan … It’s just to support the military presence of these countries in Afghanistan.”

And taking into account the 416 million dollars Washington is going to spend to build its new embassy there, it is obvious that “certainly there would be some Afghans that would feel that a foreign intervention, whether it’s military or economic or social interventions, is something that they will fight against,” Wright said.

However, some women’s rights proponents, such as Esther Hyneman, co-director of the civil society organisation Women for Afghan Women (WAW), consider the U.S. presence necessary to avoid civil war and to protect women in Afghanistan.

“Funding is crucial,” Hyneman told IPS. “Otherwise facilities like ours wouldn’t exist, and there would be no schools, hospitals, universities, electricity, running water, cell phones, Internet.”

Since its creation in 2001, WAW has opened five Family Guidance Centres, a Children’s Support Centre in Kabul in 2009, and four shelters. “(We) have helped about 3,000 women and girls whose rights were being violated,” Hyneman told IPS.

The executive director of the non-profit International Association of Women Judges, Joan Winship, also underlined the importance of funding for achieving progress in women’s rights in Afghanistan.

“The funding for our (judicial education programme with the Afghan women judges) has come through U.S. government programmes in legal and judicial sector,” she told IPS.

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