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Afghan Women Still Face Repression 2.5 Years On

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 29, 2004

Afghan Women Still Face Repression 2 1/2 Years After the Overthrow of the Fundamentalist Taliban Regime

Interview with Sima Wali, founder of Refugee Women in Development, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

Under the Islamic Fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan, the condition of women deteriorated almost to the state of non-personhood. Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work outside their homes, girls were not permitted to attend school and women accused of associating with males other than their husbands or relatives faced severe punishment, including execution. Since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, both Afghans and international aid workers have worked to improve the status of women in that country, but the situation is still desperate in many cases. Taliban guerrilla fighters now attacking the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai appear to be growing in strength.

Sima Wali, an Afghan woman, fled her country after the former Soviet Union invaded in 1979. In 1981, she founded Refugee Women in Development to support uprooted women from many countries to participate in their own economic and social development. Wali returned to Afghanistan for the first time in October 2002, where she ran a skills-training workshop for women-led Afghan non-governmental organizations.

Between the Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Wali about what she views to be the most serious challenges facing Afghan women and her hope for women's participation in the nation's new government.

Sima Wali: The most serious problem that Afghan women are confronting right now is the issue of security. Women do not feel safe and secure to leave their homes to attend literacy classes, for girls to leave their homes to go to school, to take employment, and right now, with the Constitution that has been ratified and our elections that are coming up, women will not be able to vote and to go freely to participate in this democracy-building process.

Between The Lines: There’s been a lot of emphasis in the West in the U.S. on liberating women from the burka. I’m not sure how much that’s happened. If it has, what does it mean, and if it hasn’t, what’s the significance of that?

Sima Wali: The priority issue of Afghan women is not the dress code. That does not define the liberation of women. It’s access to literacy, to education, to human rights, freedom from violation of human rights, participation in the government and income generation. We need to make sure that the peace dividend transfers to the common Afghan person, particularly the woman, because right now the demographics of Afghanistan are such that more 60 percent of the population are women, and you cannot rebuild a country with less than 40 percent of its population.

Between The Lines: The maternal mortality rate among Afghan women is among the highest in the world. Is anything being done to address that issue now, under current conditions?

Sima Wali: Afghan women bear many children. The average Afghan family size is five to seven children. Women are themselves traumatized and malnourished, and they are forced to bear numerous children without adequately spacing their children in a very healthy manner. So we need to make sure that maternal mortality is eradicated. The Ministry of Health, which is led by a woman -- a former general, an Afghan woman -- she’s a very strong and powerful woman. She is focusing on the issue of reducing maternal mortality and infant mortality. But in order to succeed in her programs, we need to make sure these programs are offered to Afghan women in the provinces, like Kandahar and Herat, where women do not have access to hospitals, to clinics; there are no doctors. We need to be sure that funding is appropriated, that funds mobile health clinics in the UN needs to be involved in funding such programs whereby women in the provinces will have access to such programs to reduce maternal mortality rates.

Between The Lines: Evidence has been mounting over the last year, or ever since the Taliban were overthrown, that they’re coming back. What can you say about that right now? Is it different in Kabul than in the rest of the country, and do you see the possibility of them re-establishing themselves in control of the country?

Sima Wali: We are very worried about the Taliban and the new Taliban. We have unfortunately many in the government who are warlords or former warlords who violated the rights of the Afghan people who are holding powerful positions, and they are also violating the rights of Afghan women. We need to make sure that the United States understands that by siphoning away resources and security -- not expanding security forces in Afghanistan -- will lead to the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda types, as is now happening, especially in the provinces, where the Taliban and al Qaeda are waxing stronger. We as women are very concerned. And there are signs already where girls’ schools are being burned down, women are being threatened, that the Americans are not here to stay and they will leave Afghanistan and you will have to face us. So people are very afraid about the resurgence of the Taliban movement.

The Afghan army needs to be bolstered; we need a security force; we need justice and courts; and for all that, we need funding. We need security forces that go beyond Kabul and make sure that women are given adequate protection. Without that kind of protection, security will not happen and it will affect the security of the United States as we saw in the unfortunate events of 9/11. 9/11 happened because of Afghanistan, which was the hotbed of terrorism. And with our attention now focused on Iraq, there’s less and less funding for Afghanistan and making sure terrorism is eradicated in Afghanistan.

Contact Refugee Women in Development by calling (703) 931-6442 or visit their website at


Melinda Tuhus is a producer with Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending April 2, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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