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Sweeta Noori: strong civil society is Afghanistan’s main chance for success

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Sweeta Noori

Ivana Davidovic
WVoN co-editor

The international community and the representatives of the Afghan government gathered in Bonn on Monday at a one-day conference to discuss the future of Afghanistan, 10 years after the nightmare of the Taliban rule ended.

High-profile participants, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon vowed to stand by Afghanistan as it struggles to establish security and stability after all NATO-led combat forces leave the country in 2014.

However, the gathering was marked by absences – of Pakistan and the Taliban. And, although the concern for women’s rights was held up as a justification for military intervention in 2001, gender equality was largely off the negotiating table.

Islamabad snubbed the conference over an air strike late last month by NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The Taliban also stayed away from Bonn, saying that the meeting would “further ensnare Afghanistan into the flames of occupation”.

Afghan women were never even supposed to feature prominently. Although they constituted 33% of the Afghan delegation, according to one of the attendees, well-known women’s rights activist Selay Ghaffar, women were shut out of the crucial pre-conference preparations, where agendas were shaped, documents drafted and alliances built.

Sweeta Noori, the Afghanistan country director of the the Women for Women charity, said: “I am fearful for women, really concerned that all the gains they have made in the last 10 years will go back and there will not be any hope for their future if the fundamental Taliban took the power back.”

The growing number of women in political office and leadership positions in Afghanistan is often cited as an example of success for women’s rights. Some 28% of Afghan parliamentarians are now women – a higher proportion than in France, Canada or Britain.

But the figures don’t tell the whole story.

During her visit to the UK last week, Noori met the minister for the Middle East and South Asia, Alistair Burt.

She said that he showed her reports which were really impressive: two million more boys and girls were going to school in Afghanistan, of whom 40 per cent are female.

“But I asked him ‘do you have a number of schools open right now in Afghanistan?’ He said no.

“Good figures are presented by our government, through the media, to the international community. But these are only words. Reality is very different.”

On paper, women are guaranteed rights, but often face insurmountable difficulties when trying to exercise them.

In Afghanistan it is not easy for a woman to run for political office. The reality is that she needs permission from the men in her family.

Those women are constantly worried for their lives, fliers are distributed in the middle of the night warning them not to run. Their children are under death threats.

“There is also an increase in domestic violence. Women may increasingly know their rights, but have nowhere safe to go if they complain to regional authorities.

“They may even be jailed. Their families often won’t take them back once they are released. Many resort to self-immolation out of a sheer sense of desperation,” said Noori.

She believes that the withdrawal of the foreign troops is a worry for many men and women. President Karzai himself said that if the fight for a stable Afghanistan is lost, the Taliban might make a comeback and take over the country.

“People think that this is being rushed and that Afghanistan will be abandoned. The citizens are OK with the troops starting to leave in 2014. But they want it to be a gradual, five-year process from the deadline.

“That way our army and the police will be able to build their capacity and take care of the security by themselves,” said Noori.

Despite these fears many communities are deeply distrusting of the allied troops “because of the many mistakes that they have made – random bombings, midnight raids of houses, searching of women in inappropriate ways. There is no respect. That’s why some are joining the insurgency groups.”

After 15 years of working with women, Noori knows from experience that treating people with respect is the only way one can make a lasting and positive change.

Women for Women have worked with around 33,000 women in Afghanistan so far and have engaged thousands of men in their leadership programmes.

Many communities where they operate are very conservative, but they have nevertheless managed to secure strong local support for their educational programmes.

“You can’t just say ‘hey, we are here because you need to change and what you have been doing is wrong’,” warns Noori.

“You need to come in respectfully. Tell the people that you are there to support them economically, to help their children to be healthy, clean and able to go to school. We show them that in order to achieve that they need to to involve women.”

And the involvement of women in public life is the key to Afghanistan’s peace and prosperity. According to Noori, women’s groups are usually the most open to change and investment in them is a crucial element of building a strong civil society which can hold governments to account.

It is, therefore, a big concern that civil society groups were woefully under-represented in Bonn.

“The international aid needs to reach women directly in Afghanistan, not just arrive in the country and then disappear. We must have a transparent process there.

“Sometimes the government can’t be fully trusted to oversee the distribution of this money. It feels that the international community has forgotten about supporting our civil society.

“The only way our government is going to be transparent and accountable is if the institutions of the civil society are given an opportunity to keep it in check and put pressure on it.

“That’s why women are so important, if you empower half of the society, huge positive changes are possible.”

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