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08 October 2003

Afghanistan Progressing on Gender Issues, Official Says

Yet more work needed to change traditional views, Sarabi adds

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The youngest of Afghanistan's ministries, the Ministry of Women's Affairs, is making steady progress toward introducing gender issues into all aspects of the country's social and political systems, the ministry's head says.

"The most important thing now for women is [for the country] to adopt a constitution" that will guarantee women's rights, Minister Habiba Sarabi told a gathering of reporters October 7 on the eve of an historic meeting of 60 country ministers of women's affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

The meeting is sponsored by the Council of Women World Leaders, based at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, with support from the U.S. Department of State.

Sarabi said the Afghanistan government has made much progress to protect women's rights but much needs to be done to change the still-prevalent view that men should have more rights than women. "It is increasingly important to educate people about the issue of women's role in democracy," she said.

Afghanistan's 500-member Loya Jirga -- or grand council -- will debate and vote on ratification of a draft constitution when it meets in December. The draft to be considered declares Afghanistan is a Muslim country but does not impose Shariah law, or Islamic religious codes, according to news reports. Afghan women leaders "are happy" with the draft, Sarabi said.

At least 18 percent of the representatives voting on the constitution will be women, she added.

The minister said a reformed judiciary is also important for ensuring the fair implementation of newly adopted laws on women's rights, adding that reforms are under way.

Solving the many problems in the country that affect women is possible, "but it takes time," Sarabi stressed. After 33 years of armed conflict, Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world with one million widows and a life expectancy of only 45 years for women and 44 for men.

Sarabi said 30 to 35 percent of Afghan girls are now in school, but most of those are in the cities. A still common traditional view, especially in rural areas, is that school is "bad" for girls, she said. "We have to change the minds of women and men," she said, adding that most people in rural areas are unaware of the laws the government has adopted for women.

"We have to educate them [rural women] how to participate in society," she said.

Sarabi said the media can have a forceful role supporting the ministry's outreach to both women and men on gender issues by "helping to remove negative beliefs."

The Ministry of Women's Affairs has been active on many fronts to upgrade the public's perception of women's roles in a post-conflict Afghanistan. In late September the ministry invited several religious scholars to hear interpretations of the Quran that honor the lives of girls and women, Sarabi said. The scholars also heard about how education and employment of women can be incorporated into Islam, with the hope that the scholars will alter their traditional views.

The ministry, established in December 2001, has shifted its mission from welfare activities to activities that promote women's involvement in the country's economic growth, Sarabi said. The ministry's economic department is working to get more women involved in business and has created an Afghan Women's Business Council, which provides business skills training for women, she added.

Sarabi said her ministry hopes to get other nations' continued financial and political support.

The Council of Women World Leaders is a network of current and former heads of state and heads of government. The council's mission is to promote good governance and enhance global democracy by increasing the number, effectiveness and visibility of women at the highest levels in their countries.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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