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Afghan Women Today:
Realities and Opportunities

Remarks by Ms. Julia Taft, Assistant Administrator and Director
Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery

International Women's Day Panel Discussion
8 March 2002
United Nations

As we gather to commemorate International Women's Day, we are in particular solidarity with Afghan women in celebrating their newfound opportunity for peace and development. The experience of our Afghan sisters during the many years of repression has long galvanized international attention. Now the challenge is focused within Afghanistan to ensure the new government can create the conditions for implementing the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women signed by Chairman Karzai in January. The UN is a strong partner in this effort.

Today is a day to remind us that Afghan women are not alone in their struggle to recover their dignity, their human rights and full participation in society. Human security is a major aspect of the work of the United Nations and one key role, is to make sure that women's rights are treated as human rights whether in times of conflict or in peace.

After 23 years of conflict, Afghanistan is now faced with a vast majority of its population suffering from severe mental and physical trauma, poverty and unemployment. Afghan women number over half of Afghanistan's population of over 20 million, with just over 2 million of them widows, many of whom have been forced onto the streets to beg for their subsistence. Maternal and infant mortality, health, sanitation, and education rank among the worst in the world.

Before the Taliban seized power, Afghan women made up half of government workers, 70 per cent of schoolteachers and 40 per cent of doctors in Kabul. In 1977, women also made up 15 per cent of the traditional central governing council-the Loya Jirga. In recent years, the denial of rights to Afghan women decimated their inability to contribute to the economic, political and social fabric of society.

But Afghan women have shown great resiliency and survival skills. And they are beginning to come forward to regain positions in the civil service, to resume their jobs in NGOs and the UN agencies, and beginning to participate actively in critical social sectors.

While the challenge of rebuilding these sectors is monumental, the re-establishment of physical security, rule of law and effective health and education systems will profoundly strengthen social stability while encouraging the reintegration of women in the Afghan society. Such are the challenges faced by the United Nations Development Group as the agencies work with government authorities to expand their programs to address these issues throughout the country.

In the next year, we aim to significantly increase female teaching staff and enrolment numbers in primary and secondary schools. The Afghan school year begins on the 23 March. UNICEF is printing and distributing textbooks and teacher training kits and UNDP is supporting the Afghan Interim Authority by prepositioning the salary requirements for tens of thousands of teachers, many of whom are women. The World Food Programme will also be providing food for education-a powerful incentive to increasing boys and girls in school.

Among the quick impact projects that UNDP is undertaking is the refurbishment of Kabul University and its dormitories so its female students will have safe accommodations. We look forward to the return of Afghan women to the university for the first time in several years. Two hundred have enrolled already and we hope hundreds more will be encouraged to become students in the near future.

The emergency Loya Jirga, will start two months from now, and is expected to reserve one hundred out of five hundred seats for women. UNDP and UNIFEM are collaborating to support the Women's Ministry in Afghanistan and ensure its technical capacity to mainstream gender in all development activities of the Interim Authority. Ongoing sectoral needs assessments are beginning to incorporate consultations with women, but these must be expanded in the design of all recovery and reconstruction programs.

Due to UNIFEM's support, the UN system has instigated a number of initiatives in recent months to ensure that the voices of Afghan women are heard. Discussions held with women, included the "Vital Voices" partnership conference in Washington and the Islamabad Watching Brief. In addition, the NGO?convened Afghan Women's Summit and the UNIFEM-led Women's Leadership Roundtable, both held in December in Brussels, produced the "Brussels Action Plan", the first international document to incorporate a comprehensive strategy to address the concerns of the women of Afghanistan.

Ms. Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of UNIFEM, is in Kabul today leading a historic UN interagency support group in conjunction with the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs. Over 50 Afghan women convened from different provinces within the country. These women, representing community leaders, professionals, academia and public services were provided the opportunity to speak with senior members of the Afghan Interim Authority, the donor community, national and international media and NGO representatives. An estimated 600-800 Afghan women from all over the country also went to Kabul for today's event to affirm their solidarity and to celebrate through dialogue, music, and poetry.

As caretakers of families and active community participants, Afghan women are well placed to identify critical needs and priorities for reconstruction and development. We are committed to using local institutions and giving Afghan women the tools, support and legitimate space they need to develop, promote, and implement a system-wide agenda that builds women's capacities and leadership. Through these efforts the reconstruction of Afghanistan can be "engendered" in an effective and lasting manner, leading to sustainable development for the country.

Let us all celebrate the hope for full participation of women in the economic, social and political landscape of Afghanistan. The UN funds and programs are dedicated to this goal and steadfastly embrace the women of Afghanistan whose journey toward equity and equality has finally begun.