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Outlook Improving for Afghan Women

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 2002 – The plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime ranked among the worst endured by any group of humans in modern history. But international aid organizations and the U.S. government are working hard to help these women learn to help themselves.

"Women, who just one year ago were prisoners in their own homes, are now free," Secretary of State Colin Powell said this morning. "They are judges and educators, broadcasters, economists, business women, (and) government ministers."

The secretary was speaking to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Steering Group meeting at the World Bank headquarters here.

"Afghanistan under the Taliban gave the world a sobering example of a country where women were denied their rights and their place in society," first lady Laura Bush said in March.

American and Afghan leaders have agreed that women need a role in Afghan society much broader than in the past.

"We all know, and it's to be sure, that there is a long road ahead for the women of Afghanistan and for their country," Powell said Sept. 24 in welcoming 14 Afghan women to the United States for a four-week Educational Leadership Program.

The program is hosting women employees of various Afghan government agencies to study computer skills; train in proposal development, communications and leadership management; and participate in familiarization tours of community programs. The women will also attend social events and cultural activities. A State Department news release said each participant will receive a donated laptop computer.

"Fortunately, there is broad agreement in the United States, within the world community, and within Afghanistan's transitional administration that women must play prominent roles in the massive relief, reconstruction, and development efforts that lay ahead," Powell said. "They must play an important role if those efforts are to succeed. Women must be planners, they must be implementers, and they must be beneficiaries."

The State Department also sponsors the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, which partners government and business leaders and media representatives in both countries to work on finding solutions to issues facing Afghan women today. The council's Web site at usawc.state.gov/ notes it "facilitates public-private partnerships that empower Afghan women to play a critical role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan."

The three main issues facing Afghan women today are poor health care, education and financial opportunities. The council is working with the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs to build women's development centers in each of the country's 32 provinces, the Web site says. These provincial centers would help women gain access to job training, childcare resources, adult literacy and human rights awareness programs, and basic health services.

The few such centers already operating in Kabul have proved very popular and already have long waiting lists for their services, council officials said.

"These centers are rooted in their communities, and it is planned that graduates will ultimately staff the centers, ensuring sustainability," the Web site explains.

Quality health care for women is one of the most desperate needs in Afghanistan today. More than 90 percent of Afghan women give birth at home, most without the aid of a physician or trained midwife. The council Web site explains the country has one of the world's highest rates of maternal deaths. It's second only to Sierra Leone in the rate of women who die during pregnancy and childbirth, according to the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF.

Afghanistan also has one of the world's highest mortality rates for infants and children.

With such physical health care crises, Afghan women's mental health issues might be overlooked, but the problem is equally dramatic. The council Web site says the aid group Physicians for Human Rights estimated in 2001 that more than 70 percent of women exposed to the Taliban's policies met the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWomen cross a market in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Staff Sgt. Derrick C. Goode, USAF.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn Afghan woman of the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Senior Airman Bethann Hunt, USAF.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn Afghan woman and child in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Sgt. Sean A. Terry, USA.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn Afghan woman teaches a class in a girls school near Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Photo by Staff Sgt. Ricky A. Bloom, USAF.  
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