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Afghanistan: ‘The state of women's rights is still a concern'

Interview with Dr. Massouda Jalal, former Afghan Minister for Women's Affairs.



MASSOUDA JALAL: `India knows the region very well and can play a greater role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.'

Dr. Massouda Jalal, former Minister for Women's Affairs in Afghanistan (2004-2006), was in New Delhi recently for an informal interaction with students of the Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi. Dr Jalal, a psychiatrist and paediatrician, emerged as a leading voice for women's emancipation after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. She was also the only woman candidate in the Afghan presidential election in 2004. Bula Devi spoke to her. Excerpts.

What is the status of women in Afghanistan?

The status of women in Afghanistan was the worst right after the Taliban regime. But after the power of investment and the energy of the international community and the United Nations, it has become second worse in the world. So it is better than in the Taliban's time but it is still a matter of concern. About 70 per cent of the population in Afghanistan is facing extreme poverty. This extreme poverty in Afghanistan has a female face because of inadequate access to economic opportunities and economic resources for women.

What about education of women?

Afghanistan's population is approximately 30 million as in the nationwide census and half of them are women and girls. About 89 per cent of the vast majority of women in the country is illiterate; of this figure, 80 per cent lives in the rural areas. Illiteracy is mostly in the rural areas. What little literacy and education that we have for women is concentrated particularly in the cities and the capital.

Should women be brought into the peace process?

Sure. They are the real peacemakers; they are the actual messengers of peace.

Why have women been kept away from the peace process?

It's because in Afghanistan, power, locally, most often belongs to the extremist groups. They don't want women to be in the mainstream peace process and be participative, empowered and benefit from the process. They want women to be at home and obey the male members of their families.

In that case should the ‘good Taliban' be brought into the mainstream governance?

Well, names and titles are given to help these groups to be engaged in power otherwise we all know the Taliban when they were ruling Afghanistan; we all know their ideology, their vision and their mission, and we all know what they will do once they are again in power; we know they don't want women to participate outside their own life.

Do you think Afghanistan has hit rock-bottom since international humanitarian organisations are also feeling the threat?

Targeting international groups means that the Taliban wants to create fear in international circles in Afghanistan; to frighten them so that they leave Afghanistan because the presence of international organisations helps to make Afghanistan empowered as a whole and come out of the current crises. But the enemies of Afghanistan do not want that and so the international groups are being targeted.

So has it hit the worst situation?

Afghanistan has reached a blind point; it cannot move and that is why the international community is speaking with the Taliban to bribe the Taliban with political power and engage it in the political processes and stop the killings. In a way they are placing Afghanistan in the hands of criminals. I do not know why the international community or even the U.N. trusts the Taliban.

The Taliban had (ruled) Afghanistan and threatened the security of the world. The international community wants to make the same mistake again.

Do you think donor agencies should change their strategy?

Donor agencies should stop all negotiations with the Taliban. They should be disarmed through other mechanisms and removed from Afghanistan, and that's what was decided in Bonn. The Bonn Agreement should be implemented.

How? Militarily?

There are many different ways (to tackle) things in the Afghanistan context. Why did they remove the Taliban from the capital but leave them to stay on the border and provinces? Why didn't they get rid of this headache from Afghanistan at the beginning? That by itself is a question. Why did they remove the Taliban from the north and central parts of the country but not from the southern part? This is the question.

What about the social movement in Afghanistan?

After the international community came in, a lot of funds poured in and many organisations were formed to work for human rights, women rights, etc. But these are mostly donor driven to implement the donors' interests, plans and strategies. Besides, corruption was never to this extent in the country, security is getting worse day by day, human rights and women's rights are slipping back, and extremism has been an issue in Afghanistan. All this is affecting the social movement in Afghanistan. Had the Bonn Agreement been implemented successfully and completely on time, it wouldn't have reached this situation.

Who do you hold responsible for this?

I think when the power structure was to be formed in Afghanistan, the U.S.' attention was drawn to the Iraq war and by the time they were settled with the Iraq issue, a power structure had already been established in Afghanistan. So they (the U.S.) left it by itself. So those who were stronger got a better position in Afghanistan. And who was stronger? The extremist groups.

How do you see India's role in Afghanistan?

I think India knows the region very well and in the context of Afghanistan, India can have a greater role than what it had so far. If India can play a role in international politics with its share of assistance for peace and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it is good for all — India, Afghanistan, the region and the whole world.

( Bula Devi is a Delhi based independent journalist.)

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