FEATURE-Afghan women brave rockets for rights

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By Rina Chandran

KABUL, Dec 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the decade since launching a radio station in northern Afghanistan, Sediqa Sherzai has braved mines and rocket attacks as the Taliban seeks to silence her. But she has kept going.

Fawzia Koofi, the country's first female deputy of the lower house of parliament, has survived assassination and kidnap attempts. Last year, she was banned from running for re-election - so she set up her own party.

Women have made huge strides in the conservative country since a ban during Taliban rule of 1996 to 2001 from school, work, politics and going outside without a male relative.

While growing numbers of women now complete education and work in previously male bastions, they continue to face harassment and hurdles, human rights activists say.

"Women are half the population, and should have the same rights and opportunities as men in this country," said Sheila Qayumi, a programme coordinator at Equality for Peace and Democracy, which advocates for more women in politics.

"But women are still denied education, forced to marry young, kept from working, and treated no better than animals in the provinces," she said.

Four decades of war, from occupation to internal fighting, have destroyed the economy, rendering it among the poorest in the world, with few jobs for a mostly young population.

Women occupy a particularly precarious place, as they face cultural barriers and hostility - not just from conservative family members, but also hardline Islamist groups - for pursuing financial independence and greater equality, Qayumi said.

OPEN MINDS

Nearly half of Afghan women would rather leave their war-torn country permanently if they could, citing poverty and limited opportunities, according to a Gallup poll in September.

On her radio broadcasts in Kunduz, Sherzai discusses issues from education to independence, domestic violence, inheritance rights and women's right to vote - and stand for elections.

Most women are not aware of their rights, or are too scared to exercise them, said Sherzai, whose staff are mostly women.

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"My goal is to educate women on their rights, and open their minds," she said, speaking through a translator.

"I want to convince families to let their daughters study, to not marry them off young, and to respect their choices."

Funding for the station is uncertain, and her family fears for her safety, but she has never thought about quitting, she said, even when she had to broadcast from home after the station was attacked and her equipment stolen.

"My dream is that Afghan women can be safe and free to do what they wish to do, without men stopping them," Sherzai said in an interview on a visit to the capital.

She asked that her picture not be taken for safety reasons.

Across the country, efforts are underway to make public spaces safer and more open to women.

While Afghan women lag on many measures, a quota that reserves 68 of 250 seats in the lower house of parliament gives them a higher representation than the global average of 24%.

The quota makes it easier for women to enter politics, but they lack money and run greater security risks, said Koofi.

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"Being a female politician is hard everywhere - we are scrutinised for our looks and our clothing, and we are not taken seriously," she said in an interview in her office.

"In Afghanistan, men don't accept women in the public sphere, and our views are not respected even in parliament."

MAYORS, DE-MINERS

An international aid effort that arrived with foreign forces in 2001 prioritised girls' education and women's empowerment.

From a female de-mining team in Bamiyan province to street singers in Kabul, women have since won more independence.

But there are fears that a final withdrawal of U.S. troops, the winding down of international engagement and the re-emergence of the Taliban may reverse gains.

Turnout of women voters in September's presidential election was low amid security threats and concerns over facial recognition technology.

In the provinces, the challenges are still greater.

Zarifa Ghafari, 26, mayor of Maidan Shahr in restive Wardak province, has said she expects to be assassinated. She was recently named on BBC's list of 100 women of 2019.

Khadija Ahmadi is the only other female mayor in the country, in the city of Nili in the remote Daykundi province.

It has taken her a while to assert authority locally and to get federal authorities in Kabul to allocate resources.

"The men would not listen to me at first. Many have come around after they realised I am persistent and can get the work done," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yet women are constantly thwarted.

Last year, Koofi was one of several members of parliament disqualified from contesting the elections for allegedly running private armed militias and possessing illegal weapons - charges she denied and challenged.

Koofi recently set up a political party, Movement of Change for Afghanistan, becoming the first Afghan woman to do so.

The 44-year-old also took part in so-called intra-Afghan talks aimed at bringing together Taliban representatives and other Afghans to find a way to end the war.

Women were also included for the first time in the Taliban delegation at the peace talks, as the militant group projects a more moderate image.

"Women have been the worst victims of the war, so we must have a say in the future of this country," Koofi said.

"It's not enough to just fill a quota; we have to bring women to the forefront of politics, to leadership positions, and be a part of national decision making," she said. (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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