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Archive for April 2007

Afghanistan urges Iran to halt refugee repatriation

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ABC Radio Australia

April 29, 2007

Afghanistan’s government has called on neighbouring Iran to suspend the repatriation of Afghan refugees.

Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry says the country lacks the resources to resettle them.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen says about 30,000 Afghan refugees, including women and children, have been sent home from Iran in the past week alone.

He says war-torn Afghanistan lacked resources and the repatriation will cause problems for the government and the refugees.

Iran, after neighbouring Pakistan, accounts for the largest number of Afghan refugees — about two million who had fled their country during three decades of conflict.

Iran says around one million Afghans living there have illegally entered and will be sent home.

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April 30, 2007 at 3:40 am

Posted in Refugees

Illiteracy still is the real enemy

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Brave activist fights to educate girls and women in Afghanistan

Jonathan Curiel
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Two weeks ago, while attending a philanthropy conference at Google’s headquarters, she met former President Bill Clinton. Two years ago, she visited the White House to speak with President Bush. Both times, Sakeena Yacoobi pleaded with the American leaders to find a way to change how the United States regards Afghanistan. Please, she said, give more aid to the country’s fledgling education system, even if it means reducing the amount of money for military ventures.

The shooting war in Afghanistan is hopeless unless there’s a corresponding war on the country’s illiteracy rates, Yacoobi says. In some rural parts of Afghanistan, 99 percent of the population has never been schooled.

“Education is the key issue,” says Yacoobi, whose organization, the Afghan Institute of Learning, is a leading educator in her native country. “It’s linked with poverty. If you have an educated society, you will manage to have skills and jobs and finances. We need long-term education, quality education. Billions of dollars have poured into Afghanistan, but if you don’t (educate people), you are wasting your time and you are wasting your money.”

Yacoobi got commitments from both Bush and Clinton, but that’s all she got, which is why she’s continuing her campaign to change America’s foreign-policy goals in Afghanistan.

To her admirers, Yacoobi is a brave miracle worker — a person who risks her life in Afghanistan, as she did when she ran underground schools during the reign of the Taliban from 1995 to 2001. Today, the Afghan Institute of Learning helps 350,000 Afghan girls and women through education and medical intervention. Since the Taliban were deposed, Yacoobi has been more influential than almost any other woman. Some Afghans say Yacoobi should be minister of education, or even president — a position occupied by Hamid Karzai, who employs several graduates of Yacoobi’s organization.

“I say, ‘Thank you very much, but I’m very happy with what I’m doing,’ ” Yacoobi said.

As she sits at an Afghan restaurant in San Carlos, Yacoobi makes sure her hair is tucked behind her hijab, the Islamic head scarf that pious Muslim women wear in public. Yacoobi has a special connection to Northern California. For her undergraduate degree, she studied at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, which is awarding her an honorary doctorate on May 19. (The day before, Yacoobi is speaking at San Francisco’s World Affairs Council on the subject of women’s rights in Afghanistan.) Yacoobi’s organization gets some of its funding from the Global Fund for Women, based in San Francisco, which appointed Yacoobi to its board of directors. In 2005, Yacoobi was one of 1,000 women collectively nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The Afghan Institute of Learning, which works both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, tries to teach critical thinking to students. It offers classes on health, finances, voting and other subjects. Many traditional Muslim men are opposed to the organization’s goals — at least at first. Yacoobi describes a woman in a rural part of western Afghanistan who, excited to enroll in an institute program, told her husband, who refused to let her attend unless she could still manage her domestic chores.

“She promised him to get up at 4 in the morning, and do all of her work, and then come to the program,” Yacoobi says. “Through this program, after three years, this woman finished fourth grade, learned how to read and write. Now she is a tailor and is helping with the economic situation in her household.”

The woman also is a health supervisor in her neighborhood, making sure other women take their children to health clinics and follow safe medical practices. “It’s amazing,” Yacoobi says. “This woman is now full of joy.”

Such stories are countered by news of threats and attacks on schools, teachers and students whom the Taliban accuse of being corrupted by Western influence. Ten days ago, suspected Taliban militants murdered the principal of a girls school in the province of Khost, an eastern part of Afghanistan where the Taliban have resurfaced. In the past year, the Taliban have killed 40 teachers, Afghanistan’s education minister said after the Khost homicide.

In a report issued this month, Amnesty International said violence by the Taliban and other militant groups had led to the closing of more than 300 schools in southern and southeastern Afghanistan. Quoting from a Taliban rulebook, Amnesty International said the militant group prohibits Afghans from working as teachers in non-Taliban schools because “this strengthens the system of the infidels” under “the current puppet regime” of Karzai.

The rulebook also says “true Muslims should apply to study with a religiously trained teacher and study in a mosque or similar institution. Textbooks must come from the period of the Jihad or from the Taliban regime.”

Because of these threats, and because of cultural traditions that minimize the importance of formal education, about 7 million Afghan children don’t attend school — compared with 5 million who do. Sixty percent of Afghan society is illiterate.

Yacoobi says she has never been threatened or attacked, but she takes precautions because she’s sure the Taliban and other militant groups “had their eyes on me. And they follow what I’m doing. Once they found out what I’m doing, they did not come and attack me. I’m a Muslim. I’m following my religion. But I’m very careful. People don’t allow their daughters and women to work with me until they realize they trust me.” The teaching is often done in tents, storage containers or under trees. Textbooks are luxuries, as are pencils and notebooks. During the Taliban reign, Yacoobi lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, and would go to Afghanistan (always wearing a burqa) to help establish underground schools. To hide their learning and avoid suspicion, students would vary the times they attended classes, and never arrive or leave in large groups.

If the Taliban had discovered Yacoobi’s role in the underground schools, it’s likely they would have killed her. The Afghan Institute of Learning ran 38 underground schools during the Taliban’s rule. Today, Yacoobi’s organization operates schools and health clinics on a budget of $1.5 million.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” she says, “first in the refugee camps (in Pakistan), then in the Taliban underground, and now inside Afghanistan. I can see the impact. I can see the change in our society.”

Yacoobi has no children. She says the thousands of girls and women she helps through her organization are like her own. Her career, she says, is dedicated to her father, Mohammad Yacoob Yacoobi, who passed away last year. Her father was illiterate but valued education. “When I was (a girl) in Afghanistan, my father could have married me to someone,” Yacoobi says. “I had many people come to ask for my hand. But my father asked me, ‘Do you want to marry or do you want to study?’ And I said, ‘I want to study.’ He said, ‘As long as you want to study, I let you.’ “

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Online information

To read more about Sakeena Yacoobi’s May 18 San Francisco talk, go to http://www.itsyourworld.org/program.php?page=1877

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April 30, 2007 at 3:40 am

Posted in Aid, Development, Education

85 killed in 2006 Afghan school attacks

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By RAHIM FAIEZ
Associated Press / April 29, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan – At least 85 students and teachers were killed last year in attacks blamed on insurgents who oppose education for girls and teaching boys anything other than religion, Afghanistan’s education minister said Sunday.

Insurgents also burned down 187 schools, while 350 closed because of security concerns, Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said.

“The enemy of our nation … has targeted our education system through destruction and inhumanity,” Atmar told thousands of students at a stadium in Kabul in a speech marking Education Day. Militants are “killing our innocent teachers and students and burning our schools.”

The number of students attending school has skyrocketed since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime, which banned girls from going to school and boys from studying anything other than Islam.

But more than half of Afghan children still lack the means to go to school, while 60 percent of those enrolled “study under tents, in the shade of walls and trees or in some cases, under the hot sun,” Atmar said.

About 5.4 million students were enrolled in school last year, up from less than 1 million during Taliban rule. Thirty-five percent of children enrolled were girls.

Atmar said 1,100 schools were being constructed or were planned, and the ministry expected 800,000 new students to enroll in this school year.

Atmar also condemned the videotaped execution of an alleged Taliban traitor by a boy who looked about 12 years old.

“The enemy again committed another crime — instead of sending a child to school they made him behead a man,” Atmar said.

Taliban militants oppose government-funded schools for boys because they teach subjects other than religion. Targeting schools is also considered a tactic to shake the authority of the U.S.-backed government.

Earlier this month, militants in eastern Khost province burned tents used by 600 students, the Interior Ministry said. Insurgents also set fire to a school in northern Takhar province, destroying 6,000 textbooks.

New York-based Human Rights Watch reported at least 190 bombing, arson and shooting attacks on teachers, school officials, students and schools last year — up from 91 such attacks reported in 2005.

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April 30, 2007 at 3:39 am

Posted in Education, Security

Drugs Court Gets Mixed Reviews

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The government’s attempt to fast-track drug offenders has secured some convictions, though some suspect the big players are too powerful to be caught.

Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi (ARR No. 251, 27-Apr-07)

Ever since Afghan president Hamed Karzai declared a “jihad on drugs” early on in his term of office, the international community has been pouring money and training into the country to help put a stop to the growing opium industry.

Well over one billion US dollars has gone into the counter-narcotics effort to date. But at times it seems that the more money and effort are invested, the poorer the results.

More than two years on, Afghanistan is growing more opium poppy than ever. Many are pointing the finger directly at the police and the courts, who, they say, are falling down on the job of prosecuting drug traffickers.

In 2005, the government of Afghanistan, with generous international assistance, began setting up a special court system to try drug traffickers, in an attempt to speed up the process of prosecuting major offenders and circumvent the corrupt and overburdened regular courts.

The government has hailed the establishment of the drugs court in Kabul as a leap forward in the fight against drugs, but others allege it suffer from endemic corruption and is no better equipped than the normal courts to bring major drug traffickers to justice.

Afghanistan is the world’s major producer of opium poppy, and of the heroin that is derived from it. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, more than 90 per cent of the world’s heroin originates in Afghanistan.

According to the Afghan interior ministry, Iran is the primary exit route for smuggled drugs, while Pakistan and the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan come a close second. From these countries, heroin makes its way onward to European markets.

To date, the government has been powerless to provide the kind of security that would be needed to stem the flow, and the police and the judiciary are seen as almost hopelessly corrupt, a diseased chain that cannot begin to address the problem.

The new court falls under the oversight of the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, with the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General, and the Ministry of the Interior playing an institutional role.

Judges and lawyers, as well as law enforcement officials, receive special training lasting from three weeks to two months. After passing special exams, they are accepted into the court system.

At present, the court has a staff of 141, which includes 22 judges, 55 attorneys and 64 police officers.

“Given the present situation, Afghanistan needs an organ or institution that can act independently and over a broad spectrum to address this important problem – drug trafficking,” said Zalmai Afzali, spokesperson for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics. “The regular courts could also deal with these issues, but we are trying to speed up the trial procedure for drug dealers.”

The new court can facilitate the procedure because is groups together under one roof police, trial lawyers and judges, all specially trained to deal with these types of cases, he added.

“Therefore, cases are processed in a short period of time, and [we] are able to cut down on wasted time and duplication of efforts,” said Afzali.

The special court take on only the larger drug cases, according to its head Mohammad Zaman Sangari.

“This court is composed of two parts – a lower court and an appeals court,” he said. “We deal with those who are arrested with more than two kilograms of heroin or cocaine, more than 10 kilos of poppy paste or with more than 50 kilos of hash. Those caught with smaller amounts go through the regular court system.”

According to Sangari, counter-narcotics offices have been established in every province, and they coordinate all arrests involving drug traffickers.

“The local offices then report to us, and we take the detainees to a centre in Kabul, where they await trial,” he said.

To date, 349 people have been arrested for drug trafficking, of whom 317 have already been tried and sentenced, said Sangari.

General Daoud Daoud, the deputy interior minister in charge of counter-narcotics, told IWPR that those arrested have included civil servants, some of them quite high up the chain of command.

“We cannot deny that there are people inside the government who are allies of the drug traffickers, but we are trying to purge them from the system,” he said.

Daoud insisted that the new court system had accelerated the process of apprehending and convicting smugglers.

“We are serious about this problem,” he said. “We will root out this phenomenon, and no one will be granted immunity.”

But those caught up in the system complain that justice is applied arbitrarily.

“My brother was a shopkeeper, and he was buying and selling small quantities of poppy paste, like one or one and a half kilos,” said a resident of the northern province of Balkh, who did not want to give his name. “He was arrested and now he is in Pul-e-Charkhi prison. But those big smugglers who can pay the police don’t get bothered. They only arrest those who don’t have power.”

The Ministry of Counter Narcotics confirmed that corruption in the judiciary was making it more difficult to combat the drug problem.

“Smugglers are able to free themselves by giving money to judges and prosecutors, and even to the special court,” said General Khudaidad, deputy minister of counter-narcotics.

Observers hold out little hope that the special court can free itself from the corruption that pervades all levels of Afghan society.

“The judges and lawyers in this court did not fall from the sky,” said Nabi Assir, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif. “They are a part of this corrupt system, and they are out to make more money. Smugglers are the richest class in Afghan society, and they can easily free themselves from any kind of charge or arrest.”

But court head Sangari insists that the institution is making progress.

“All of our trials are conducted according to the law. We are committed to the law,” he said. “The judges and lawyers in our court have taken many exams, and honesty is the number-one criterion for working here.”

The court does face a host of problems, many of them logistical, said Sangari.

“We do not have good transportation to transfer detainees to court proceedings,” he said. “Sometimes we have a trial beginning at 9 am, and we can’t get the accused there until four or five hours later.”

Prison facilities are also a problem. The court would like to have a separate building for its detainees.

“It is inappropriate to incarcerate smugglers together with other criminals, who have various links with dangerous gangs,” he said.

Afzali, from the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, also complains about the resources available.

“We cannot cope with the smugglers – they have the best cars, and we can’t even chase them in our old jeeps,” he said.

According to General Daoud, the international community has pledged more support.

“When we receive it, we will expand the courts into all regions of Afghanistan,” he said.

There are some positive signs that the court is having an effect.

Balkh district bazaar used to be one of the largest drug markets in the province, with many shopkeepers specialising in poppy paste. Now the substance has almost disappeared from the market.

“I have quit selling poppy paste,” said one shopkeeper. “The punishment outweighs the benefits. Many people have been arrested, and I don’t want to spend years of my life behind bars.”

Another resident of Balkh, however, said that the real problem lay higher up.

“I have seen trafficking done by people in police cars with tinted windows,” he complained. “These are the real smugglers. They arrest poor people just for show. How can we believe in this government?”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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April 29, 2007 at 2:47 am

Posted in Drugs, Governance

Marriage of Inconvenience

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The case of a woman whose “husband” is a six-year-old child highlights the problems of childhood betrothals in Afghanistan.

Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By IWPR trainees in Helmand (ARR No. 251, 27-Apr-07)

Gulghoti is a beautiful young woman of 25. Her dark eyes soften, then fill with tears as she looks at Hekmat, a quiet, skinny six-year-old who lives with her.

“I have brought him up since he was three,” she said, her voice breaking. “I even used to feed him.”

The boy is not her child, her brother, or even her stepson. He is her husband.

“My life is just one big problem,” she said. “Please tell other people not to do this.”

Six years ago, Gulghoti, who lives in southern Helmand province, married a young man to whom she had been betrothed since they were both children. Once the parents had agreed on the match and the terms, the deal was almost impossible to break, even after her fiancé was seriously injured in an accident.

Her father died when she was young, and her widowed mother did not have the means to resist pressure to honour the contract.

Gulghoti duly married her disabled fiance when she was 19, but he died after a year, leaving her a widow.

According to custom in this predominantly Pashtun region, once a woman marries, she remains more or less the property of her husband’s family. If she is widowed, she will commonly be married off to a relative of her deceased husband.

“I had to obey these rules, and marry my husband’s younger brother,” said Gulghoti.

This happened despite the fact that Hekmat was only three at the time.

“They forced me to marry this baby,” she said. “By the time he reaches adolescence, I will be an old woman.”

Hekmat does not understand that the woman who bathes him, looks after him, and prepares his meals is actually his wife. He calls her “khala” – “auntie”. He is small and shy, and shrinks away from strangers. He does not attend school – no one in his family is literate.

In Afghanistan, parents sometimes betroth their children almost as soon as they are born. There are cases of 10-day-old children being engaged or even married to each other, despite legal and religious prohibitions against underage marriages.

In most deals, a significant amount of money changes hands. The groom’s family provides a bride-price, along with gifts of clothing, jewellery, sometimes livestock. The transaction makes it difficult to renege on the contract later on.

The custom is dying out in certain parts of the country, but there are still many instances where people such as Gulghoti and Hekmat are caught in a situation they cannot control.

“I will never be happy,” said Gulghoti. “I will never be a real wife.”

The young woman lives in her husband’s home, as is customary, and trembles with fear that he father-in-law might hear that she has spoken to a reporter.

“But please give my message to others,” she begged. “Tell parents not to arrange marriages for their children when they are babies. It only leads to this kind of catastrophe.”

(Ghulgoti is not the interviewee’s real name.)

IWPR is implementing a journalism training and reporting project in Helmand. This story is a compilation of reports by the trainees.

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April 29, 2007 at 2:46 am

Posted in Women's Rights

Afghanistan: Kabul’s Record Criticized At Brussels Forum

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By Ahto Lobjakas
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

BRUSSELS, April 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) — The record of Afghanistan’s government was questioned today at a high-level international conference in Brussels.

The message of several key speakers during the German Marshall Fund’s Forum in Brussels was that Afghanistan’s democratically elected government may be turning into an impediment to progress five years after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. diplomat and peace broker in the Balkans, told the gathering that the Afghan government is “walking away from democracy” and losing its authority.

Holbrooke said he is now more concerned about the weakening of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government than he is by Taliban fighters.

Speaking on a panel entitled “Can we still win in Afghanistan,” Holbrooke said NATO has been successful in containing Taliban.

But he said militants are beginning to benefit from the lack of success of the Kabul government. He said Karzai’s government has “lost momentum” and transparency, and that its erstwhile supporters in Afghanistan are becoming alienated.

“These recent events, the walking away from democracy, the closing down of [an independent TV station], the alienation of some of the best and the brightest Afghans who had supported the government and now are fed up by it — these are really fundamental problems,” Holbrooke said.

“We don’t want to see in Kabul the kind of political chaos which in Baghdad is destroying the coalition effort,” he said.

The former U.S. diplomat was equally scathing about how international aid has been dispersed in Afghanistan.

He said there has been “massive waste” of U.S. and European money, and very poor coordination of the aid effort. As a result, he says little of the billions of dollars in aid meant for Afghan reconstruction has gone toward rebuilding roads, schools, and hospitals — infrastructure improvements that matter most to the Afghan population.

Slipping Democratic Standards?

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer appeared to share similar concerns, hinting strongly that slipping democratic standards could affect international support for Kabul.

“We are, as NATO and as the international community, defending universal values in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” de Hoop Scheffer said. “Those universal values are important. And that does mean that by definition, the international community is interested in what kind of media law there is in Afghanistan, is interested in how detainees are treated in Afghanistan.”

De Hoop Scheffer said that both “parliamentary and public support” in NATO countries for the continued presence of their troops in Afghanistan depends on the respect for universal values demonstrated by Karzai’s government.”

The only Afghan member of the Brussels panel, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Fawzai Koofi, said she thinks the Afghan government needs greater international backing to exert its authority outside Kabul.

“Maybe the system is [too] centralized,” Koofi said. “Maybe our international partners need to help us look at the decentralization of the power, because more attention to Kabul, more focus on central power, although the reality is that most of the provinces do not obey the central government.”

Koofi also said that Afghanistan’s international backers should balance development aid better and not neglect the country’s relatively secure north — where she warned that poverty could start feeding instability.

The problems both NATO and the Afghan government face in the volatile south of the country were underlined by Radek Sikorski, a former Polish defense minister.

Sikorski said Polish commanders stationed in Kandahar Province have told him that that the city of Kandahar — the second largest city in Afghanistan — is a “no-go area” for both international and Afghan officials.

De Hoop Scheffer said a “dialogue” with Pakistan about sealing the Afghan-Pakistan border to insurgents remains essential.

The NATO chief also used the Brussels forum to call for the nomination of an international coordinator for Afghanistan, whom he said should be a figure with “real political clout.”

De Hoop Scheffer also said he thinks NATO troop levels in southern Afghanistan are now adequate. But he warned that without properly trained and equipped Afghan security forces, “there will be no rule of law” in the country.

He said achieving full-fledged democracy in Afghanistan will take “generations.”

Holbrooke described Afghanistan as a “defining issue” for NATO, saying success or failure there will “determine the future” of the alliance.

Impact of Illegal Drug Trade

The panelists had given relatively little attention to the issue of the drugs trade until an intervention from the audience by British journalist and author Misha Glenny, who is currently conducting research for a book on the issue.

Glenny said the failure to rein in poppy cultivation is threatening the success of the global war against terrorism.

“We have to be perfectly frank about this,” Glenny said. “The war on terror — or the fight against terrorism, whatever you want to call it — and the war on drugs are not compatible; that as long as you have the war on drugs, you are guaranteeing the financing of the Taliban in their fight in Afghanistan. So, until you address the issue of narcotics law reform, you are not going to eradicate the Taliban because they can make so much money from opium cultivation.”

In his writing, Glenny has suggested that the international community is unable to match the Taliban’s funds in trying to create alternative livelihoods.

Glenny also argued that to have a tangible effect on the drugs trade, western countries need to take measures to significantly reduce demand for Afghan heroin.

The panelists did not directly respond to Glenny’s point. However, Holbrooke dismissed ideas that buying up the poppy crop could solve the issue, saying U.S. experience in southeast Asia shows farmers will simply extend cultivation.

Koofi, the deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament, said that incentive schemes for farmers to switch to other crops also have unwanted side effects.

She said farmers who in poppy-free areas are reverting to poppy growing in a bid to benefit from the same incentives.

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April 29, 2007 at 2:46 am

Posted in Governance

200 cases of anti-women violence registered in three months

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Zarghona Salehi

KABUL, Apr 25 (Pajhwok Afghan News): More than 200 cases of violence against women were registered across Afghanistan in the first quarter of the current year, Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said on Wednesday.

AIHRC executive head Dr. Syed Hussain Faramarz told a news conference here the cases registered over the last three months pertained to different crimes against the women.

The rights watchdog recorded 116 cases of beatings, 40 of forced marriages, 11 of expulsion from home, 10 runaways, eight of giving women to settle enmity, 10 of property disputes and a dozen of self-immolation.

Also present on the occasion were United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) head Suria Ahmad Obaid, Minister for Women Affairs Hasan Bano Ghazanfar and Afghan Red Crescent Director Fatema Gillani.

Last year, according to AIHRC, 1,651 cases of anti-women violence were reported from Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Kandahar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Bamyan, Kunduz, Faryab and Daikundi provinces.

Hasan Bano Ghazanfar, voicing concern at the cases, said: “We hope UNIFEM and the international community will help us eradicate violence against females, provide education and better economic conditions to Afghan women.”

In response, the UNIFEM head promised: “I have read all your suggestions and will take them to the UN and other donor agencies for further consideration.”

Fatema Gillani also vowed cooperation with AIHRC in banishing anti-women violence and improving the overall situation of the other half.

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April 27, 2007 at 10:03 pm