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UN: Iraqi, Afghan Ministers Seek Support In Political Struggle Ahead

By Robert McMahon

At the last major UN conference reviewing the Beijing action plan on women's rights in 2000, Afghanistan and Iraq were counted among the tragic cases of repressed states. Now, as fledgling democracies, both states have sent large delegations of female officials to the UN conference to gain insight into raising women's status and welfare. Women's affairs ministers from Iraq and Afghanistan told delegates these are times of opportunity for correcting the abuses of the recent past. But they also anticipate struggles ahead.

United Nations, 3 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Among the scores of government ministers attending the UN women's rights conference are a former peshmerga soldier from northern Iraq and a pediatrician who served Afghans as an aid worker.

Narmin Barzingy Uthman, an Iraqi Kurd, and Masuda Jalal, a medical doctor who worked for the World Food Program, are their countries' ministers of women's affairs. As representatives of states emerging from oppression, they are on the front lines of key rights issues such as protection from violence and access to health care and education.

Both spoke yesterday at the UN conference reviewing the status of women and emphasized the importance of political participation in promoting and protecting women's rights.

Jalal told the high-level session that Afghan women continue to suffer in high numbers from domestic violence, forced marriage, and other family abuses. She expressed hope in constitutional protections for women.

But in a panel discussion later, she suggested it could be another 15 years before women could realistically seek equality in political life due to factors like low literacy rates.

"Women are suffering from illiteracy. How they can come forward and be engaged in [the] political area with quality? We want that many seats [20 percent required by law] in the parliament, for instance, [in which] women with quality come and have an active part in the parliamentary affairs. We don't want to just have a symbolic representation," Jalal said.

In Iraq, where literacy rates are far higher, women stand a better chance of significant representation in political office. In the 30 January voting for the National Assembly, women won more than 30 percent of the seats.

But Minister Uthman in her speech warned that religious extremism could undermine women's rights. Other members of the Iraqi delegation expressed similar concerns.

A newly elected member of the Iraqi National Assembly, Wijdan Salim, told RFE/RL of worries that politicians from Islamic parties were intent on curtailing women's rights.

"We have a very critical time now because we are coming to write the constitution and Iraqi women have already had so many rights and we are afraid we lose [these rights] in the new constitution," Salim said.

Iraq's deputy human rights minister, Aida Ussayran, told RFE/RL that Iraqi women are determined to use the opportunity of the country's political transition to reach positions of authority. "We must be decision makers, we must be ministers, we must be in parties, we must be teachers, engineers," she said. "We had enough [trouble]. Saddam [Hussein] gave us enough, and we are not ready to take some more from them."

Uthman, the women's affairs minister, told a panel discussion on political participation that Iraqi women are increasingly aware they need to assume a role as political party leaders if they seek to hold higher office.

"It's very useful to [have] women work with the politics. It's not only working with the social [issues]. It's very necessary if she wants to be a decision maker," Uthman said.

U.S.-funded organizations such as the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute have been active in Iraq and Afghanistan in helping to raise the political participation of women.

An expert on Eurasia with the International Republican Institute, Stephen Nix, told a panel at the UN that his group has sought to train women to be more competitive in politics.

"People are not going to be attuned to women's issues, let's face it, unless they feel that the women who are promoting these issues are politically competitive. So it's all about training, education, how to be competitive, how to be a factor in politics," Nix said.

Political blocs led by Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds were the most successful in the January elections and are seeking to engage Sunni Muslim groups in forming a government. Negotiations on Iraq's constitution will not begin until that process is finished.

In Afghanistan, parliamentary elections originally set for this spring are expected to be postponed to give the government more time to prepare.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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