NGO Consultation on "Women, Peace and Security" at New School University, New York

02 March 2002

Winning the war in Afghanistan is not the same as keeping the peace. Here I would like to correct a common misconception, mostly produced by the media. Achieving peace and building communities and nations are considered in Islamic theology as the highest form of Jihad (Al-Jihad Al-Akbar), and Jihad means, "the effort used to accomplish a goal".

Afghanistan holds many lessons. Here's one: When rulers deprive women of their basic rights and freedoms, and bar them from public and political life, they lead their country to ruin. Now we must show how women, alongside men, can lead a country to recovery. Believe me, as a Muslim woman, that this participation is not against Islam, rather it is part of the duties of all Muslims, men and women.

A durable, stable peace can only be achieved by respecting human rights and meeting human needs, including the rights and needs of women, and ensuring women's full participation in Afghanistan's political life and reconstruction.

Today the peace building process is fragile. The interim government formed at the UN-sponsored Bonn conference in December confronts a massive challenge. After 23 years of conflict, the nation of 23 million people is war-weary and wounded. The military groups have a record of massive human rights violations, crime and corruption. One month ago, Ms. Hilde Johnson, Norway's Minister of International Development said that, "everything should be done to reduce the militarization of politics and convert the economies of war to economies of peace".

Afghanistan needs a legitimate broad-based government that reflects and responds to the Afghan people. One of the biggest challenges of the reconstruction process will be to ensure that the Afghan authorities fulfill their human rights obligations.

Last month, Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai demonstrated his support for women's rights by signing a declaration that affirmed the right of equality between men and women. The Afghan interim cabinet has allowed women to return to work and has put education for girls high on its agenda. However, the situation remains precarious. Dr. Sima Samar, the Interim Minister of women's affairs, has said that it is hard to coax women out of their homes as long as there is no real security on the streets. Actually, contrary to expectations and media reports, Afghan women have not flocked to throw away the purdah, not because they do not want to be free, but because they want to be safe.

Stronger efforts must be made to ensure that women feel safe and are able to take part in building the new Afghanistan. This is absolutely critical. In a recent report, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the civil war in Afghanistan had fostered "a culture of violence" against women and girls, which is likely to continue during peacetime. He warned that, "the current situation of change of power and instability may lead to increased violence against women in an atmosphere of impunity".

I fully agree with Mr. Annan on the need for special measures to protect women and girls from forced and under-age marriages and all other forms of violence-and for temporary special measures, such as targets and quotas, to accelerate the full participation of women in political decision-making and the country's recovery and reconstruction.

Such measures include supporting women's participation in the loya jirga that will be convened this spring to choose a transitional government, ensuring women's employment in all ministries, considering women's needs in all government programs, and ensuring the full protection of women's rights in Afghanistan's constitution.

This week in Kabul, there will be an important meeting on Wednesday and Thursday to promote dialogue among Afghan women on their role in the new Afghanistan. It is a follow-up to three major meetings that have taken place over the past few months. In addition to full participation in the new government, Afghan women want greater access to education and healthcare, for themselves and their families.

The standard of education in Afghanistan is among the lowest in the world, and the country has the largest gender gap. Only 3 per cent of all girls are enrolled in primary education. In the next few weeks, a new school year will begin and we must make sure these figures improve. Our sister agency, UNICEF, has been entrusted with supporting the opening of schools in Afghanistan and we know that they are doing their best to ensure they will be open by the end of March. The more that is invested in education, the more Afghanistan will benefit from its returns.

However, the country will never be strong and healthy unless its people are the same. Right now, the health status in Afghanistan is among the worst in the world, and measures must be taken immediately. Infant and maternal mortality rates are sky high (1,700 per 100,000 live births) and safe water is available to only 26 per cent of the population. Food security is also a major issue.

Dr. Suhaila Saddiq, the Interim Minister of Public Health, has asked the UN Population Fund to help coordinate efforts to improve the reproductive health of Afghan women. The need for better care couldn't be more urgent. We are working with WHO, UNICEF, donor countries and selected NGOs to respond to this request and fulfill the required tasks.

The low quality of health conditions is confirmed by researchers at the U.S. National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They found that 41 per cent of deaths of Afghan women living in 12 refugee camps in northwest Pakistan were due to maternal causes-more than 100 times the rate found in the United States. The researchers, who released their findings last week, recommended more labor and delivery clinics, better educational outreach and an ambulance service to transport acutely ill women.

In Kabul last month, the UNFPA Country Director in Afghanistan explained the situation of a Kabul woman like this:

Karima thinks she is 36 years old. She was admitted this morning for bleeding at Malalai maternity clinic. She was resting on a bed without a sheet, with nine other women in a room. When we asked her how many times she had been pregnant, her answer was '16 times'. Only eight children are alive. She said she was 16 when she got pregnant for the first time.

Inside Afghanistan one woman in 15 will die from complications of pregnancy and birth, the second highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. Nearly 99 per cent of deliveries take place at home and only 9 per cent are attended by trained medical personnel.

Early age at marriage and frequent high-risk pregnancies combined with malnutrition and little or no prenatal care creates a deadly situation for mothers and their children. More than 80 per cent of Afghan women are malnourished.

In Afghanistan, the average woman lives to the age of 44 and has eight children. She will see one in four children die before the age of five. Only 5 per cent of women can read and write. Less than 5 per cent of women have access to obstetric care, and reproductive health care is unavailable in two thirds of the country's provinces. Just two per cent of married women use contraceptives.

The non-governmental organizations-the International Red Cross, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan and Doctors of the World, who are active inside Afghanistan, have told us that the reproductive health kits we provide are extremely useful. They are the only family planning supplies currently available in the country. They told us that there were no problems at all distributing contraceptives and that when women come to health clinics, they routinely ask for condoms. All have said that the demand for contraceptives far outstrips the limited supply.

A review we conducted of maternal clinics and hospitals in Kabul found them to be painfully inadequate, overcrowded, and in desperate need of equipment, supplies and increased numbers of qualified staff. Here is how the Washington Post reporter Teresa Wiltz described the situation last Sunday at the 52 Beds Clinic in Kabul:

Here, in the delivery room, there are more swollen-bellied women than there are beds, which mean they must take turns. They take turns writhing on the metal tables, they take turns waiting to be cleaned up, and they take turns waiting for the lone doctor on duty. There are no epidurals, no Lamaze breathing, no anxious husbands mopping sweaty brows. No surgeons for emergency C-sections. At the moment, there are also no lights, or hot water.

The 52 Beds Clinic she describes is one of three clinics in Kabul that UNFPA is currently working to renovate. These clinics are so overloaded that they cannot keep women for more than 12 hours, and sometimes have to discharge mothers and their babies after only six hours of stay.

By now, two UNFPA-chartered cargo planes loaded with medical equipment and supplies will have departed from Copenhagen to arrive in Kabul. On board are ambulances, incubators, machines to sterilize medical instruments, and other equipment and supplies needed to save Afghan women's lives and the lives of their babies.

The planes also carry equipment for the new office of Afghanistan's Interim Minister of Women's Affairs, Dr. Samar. According to one of our staff members, Bill Ryan, who just returned from Kabul, a dozen workers with handheld tools are rebuilding the structure from the foundation up. Next door, more workers are hurriedly painting classroom walls and fixing floors in a women's vocational school scheduled to reopen in a few weeks. The school, which includes childcare facilities, was closed and wrecked by the Taliban. The Population Fund's support is aimed at the most vulnerable women, especially widows and heads of households.

Last week, the head of Women's affairs, Dr. Samar, told us that she was visited by a group of white-bearded elders from a remote rural area. The men came to beg the Interim Administration to build a health facility where none exists. They were actually crying as they told her about a woman who went insane after seven days in labour. The woman died two days later.

For many of us in this room, the conditions faced by Afghan women and their families are hard to imagine. And yet for many Afghan women, they have come to seem routine-a normal part of day-to-day life.

I am sad to report that prospects for extending reproductive health care to women in the Afghan countryside are currently limited by continued political and military instability, a lack of resources and a severe shortage of trained health workers. We are working on this and should soon be training scores of midwives and paramedics as well as upgrading the knowledge of the physicians now on duty.

They need general training in reproductive health and also specific training to deal with gender based violence and the other traumas Afghan women have experienced. This is vital so Afghan women and girls, and boys, can talk about these experiences and begin to heal.

As part of the integrated UN assistance mission in Afghanistan, the UN Population Fund is focusing on women's participation, human rights and reproductive health.

But while we can provide support and resources, we cannot rebuild Afghanistan. The job has to be done by the Afghan people themselves, men and women, building on their local experience, knowledge and strength. Local NGOs and community-based organizations, women's groups and academics have a key role to play.

The women of Afghanistan have been calling for peace, democracy, women's full participation, human rights, education and healthcare for many years and under very difficult circumstances. Over the years, Afghan women have consistently spoken out in search of support and they have endangered their lives by doing so.

In just a few weeks, the long winter in Afghanistan will be over-symbolizing a time of new beginning and hope.

This year on International Women's Day, let us make a solemn pledge that we will never again permit the profound and hideous violations and state-sponsored oppression that conspired against the women of Afghanistan or any other women in any country whatsovever. Let us choose to close this cruel chapter of history having fully absorbed and institutionalized the enormity and simplicity of its central lesson-that denying women freedom, rights and participation destroys a country and its people, and that supporting women's freedom, rights and full participation helps a country and its people to prosper and thrive.

Let us all work together in our own organizations to ensure that resources are made available to programmes that promote women rights and provide women with an enabling environment to make choices in their lives.

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