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Afghanistan: New Party To Focus On Women’s Rights

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By Farangis Najibullah, RFE/RL

For nearly three decades, Afghans have endured war and foreign occupation, extreme poverty, and the Taliban. Yet some suffer more than others. Not all Afghans are created equal. Fatima Nazari wants to change that.

Nazari, an Afghan parliamentarian, is the driving force behind the country’s first political party dedicated to women’s rights and issues. She launched National Need on February 19 at a ceremony in Kabul, saying the party hopes to put women’s rights at the forefront of the national political debate. It intends to run in the next parliamentary elections, likely in three years’ time.

“I believe women understand their own problems better than men would,” she says, adding that National Need will seek to increase women’s participation in politics and business. “We want to campaign for democracy, not only talk about democracy. In this way, we want to work with our brothers and the rest of Afghan society.”

Some of Nazari’s fellow deputies and officials in Kabul welcomed the creation of the country’s first-ever women’s political party. Some called it a step forward toward greater democracy and recognition of women’s rights. Interestingly, the Afghan parliament already boasts fairly high representation by women: Twenty-three of 100 members in the upper house and 68 of 249 deputies in the lower house are women.

But in a deeply conservative Islamic country devastated by decades of war, poverty, and a lack of education, that’s not enough. “I have already dealt with women’s issues as a deputy,” Nazari tells RFE/RL. “But I eventually felt that we Afghans needed a special party entirely focused on women to raise their profile.”

Tradition Of Exclusion, Abuse

Not everyone is so optimistic. Nazari says the party already boasts 22,500 registered members, men and women, not only in Kabul but also conservative areas such as Paktika, Maidan Wardak, and Helmand. Yet can a neophyte political party hope to change traditional views about the role of women in a place like Afghanistan?

Maryam Panjsheri has her doubts. A female activist in the northern Panjsher Province, she says she is “highly skeptical” about National Need’s potential to forge change beyond the capital and a few bigger cities, such as Mazar-e Sharif or Herat.

“It’s all for show,” Panjsheri tells RFE/RL. “The party leaders will give speeches, interviews, set up seminars — and that’s all they’ll do. I don’t think women’s organizations play a significant role in Afghan women’s lives. I don’t believe there is such a group that fights for their economic well-being, rights, or health care. I’m just being realistic.”

Besides all the war and poverty, Afghan women are also systematically excluded from social, political, and public life, and are often victims of domestic violence. Even Afghan officials admit that while women have improved job and educational opportunities since the fall of the Taliban, domestic violence against women is unchanged. It might be even more common than before. According to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, over the last year more than 2,000 cases of violence against women have been registered. Yet most abuse goes unreported.

Often, very young Afghan girls are also victims of fixed marriages. Some parents force their daughters — sometimes as young as 8-years-old — into marriage to settle debts or family feuds.

Moreover, women usually cannot leave their families or seek a divorce, because in many parts of Afghanistan divorce is considered dishonorable. A divorced woman cannot return to her parents’ family and, in an impoverished country with widespread unemployment, she cannot rebuild her life on her own, either.

Some women seek escape by self-immolation, resulting in death or disfigurement. Last year, at least 30 women committed suicide in the western Farah Province alone, most of them by setting themselves on fire, according to Afghan media reports.

One Step At a Time

Panjsheri acknowledges her hopes may seem unrealistic. “We know our goals won’t be easy to implement, but they are realistic,” she says. “We know it won’t happen overnight. It may take many years.” Panjsheri adds that the biggest challenge will be to reach the women in the most conservative families.

For now, that’s a tall order. “Parents who deny education for their daughters, force their young girls into marriage, or a husband who abuses his wife, definitely would not allow rights activists to meet their daughters and wives to educate them about their rights and invite them into politics and business,” she says.

But you’ve got to start somewhere, says Malolai Rushandil Osmani, a women’s rights activist in the northern Balkh Province. Speaking to RFE/RL, Osmani acknowledges the challenges facing both women and women’s rights activists. “It’s a difficult task, especially in the conservative southern and eastern provinces. But one way or another, you have to try.”

Osmani, who runs the women’s NGO Foundation to Defend Afghan Women’s Rights, has her own tactics for promoting women’s rights in sensitive areas. “When we go to a village, first of all we talk to the local elderly and the local religious leader,” she says. “With their approval, we can then meet with their families. Everybody accepts the fact that it would be better if women dealt with women’s issues.”

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, millions of Afghan girls have returned to school all over the country. Many women now have access to jobs and medical care. In the past five years, in the southern city of Kandahar alone, some 5,000 women have graduated from special literacy courses where they were taught to read and write as well as skills such as dressmaking or computer knowledge. And recently, the government announced a strategy to give nearly one-third of state jobs to women by 2012.

“Let’s just hope the new party’s leaders really seek to improve Afghan women’s lives, and that they include every woman everywhere — from Kabul to the most remote villages,” Osmani says.

(RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
Copyright (c) 2008 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free 

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February 27, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Afghan drug body hit by UK funding reversal

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By Jon Boone in Kapisa province
Published: February 25 2008 02:00 | Last updated: February 25 2008 02:00

The Afghan ministry set up to tackle the drugs trade is facing a staffing crisisafter the UK, on the instructions of the Kabul government, withdrew funding for salaries.

The best-educated workers at the fledgling ministry of counter-narcotics, which is intended to play a key role in reducing the country’s poppy crop, have been looking for other jobs after pay for senior staff dropped from $1,500 (€1,011, £762) to $200 a month.

The ministry said 30 senior workers had left since November when pay was cut.

One official, a senior aide to counter-narcotics minister General Khodaidad, said he could no longer afford the rent on his Kabul flat and was trying to find an information technology job in one of the NGOs in Kabul, which pay far more than government jobs.

Other staff members claim to have received no pay since November.

Britain, “lead sponsor” of anti-drugs efforts in Afghanistan, withdrew its subsidy as part of a process designed to bring pay into line with other ministries. Gen Khodaidad said the move would “obviously affect the work of the ministry” and called for greater international funds to be made available.

An official at the British embassy in Kabul accepted that the changes had created difficulties for the ministry but said the UK was committed to supporting Kabul’s efforts to create a sustainable public pay structure.

The reform process, which was intended to increase public sector pay overall and reduce government corruption, has proceeded so slowly that senior staff have suffered big pay cuts.

Speaking in Kapisa province, Gen Khodaidad said Afghanistan’s efforts to reduce opium and heroin production were also hampered by the web of ministries and agencies involved in tackling the issue.

The country’s narcotics economy has grown in strength in the six years since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, which had successfully banned poppy cultivation in 2000.

Last year Afghanistan produced its biggest harvest, with output up 17 per cent on 2006. It has also moved into the lucrative business of refining raw opium into heroin inside its own borders.

This week the International Monetary Fund said poppy production was worth $1bn to farmers. The value to the drug refiners and traffickers is far greater.

Counter-narcotics ministry officials said better news was expected this year, with more provinces set to be declared “poppy free”.

However, they said choking cultivation in the province of Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is at its most violent and production is at its highest, would be hard.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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February 27, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Posted in Drugs

Berlin plans to double number of police instructors in Afghanistan

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Berlin, Feb 23, IRNA

The German government is planning to double its number of police instructors and advisors from 60 to 120, news reports said Saturday.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble wrote in a commentary for Sunday’s edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that as part of Berlin’s readiness to double the presence of police trainers, the European Union should also be prepared to boost its police mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL) from 200 to 400.

So far, the EU has failed to equip EUPOL properly, both ministers said.

After a “difficult starting phase” the police mission is slowly taking shape, Schaeuble and Steinmeier added.

Around 200 European police officers are scheduled to be deployed across Afghanistan by April.

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February 27, 2008 at 5:16 am

Posted in Security

Winter cold devastates livestock sector

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FARYAB, 24 February 2008 (IRIN) – Afghanistan’s livestock sector has been badly shaken after unusually cold temperatures have killed more than 300,000 animals, causing fears of higher meat prices and increased food insecurity among the population.

“We don’t have fodder for our sheep,” Muhammad Amin, a local herder, told IRIN from outside the Ganj bazaar in the country’s northwestern Faryab Province.

“Livestock prices have plummeted. As the sheep are hungry and in snow, we have no choice but to bring them here to sell,” he said.

But for ordinary Afghans, many of whom keep livestock and are already living on the brink of poverty, selling their animals is proving difficult.

“I want to sell them, but there is no one to buy them,” said Muhammad Sharif from south-central Ghor Province. “If I can’t sell them they will die. This is the only income for my family. I have nothing else to feed them.”

316,000 animals perish

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) has reported that more than 316,000 animals nationwide have died since December after a cold snap saw temperatures drop below 20 degrees Celsius in some places.

In Badghis Province alone, over 24,000 animals have perished, devastating the livelihoods of local farmers.

“I used to have 100 sheep, but now I have just 60; most of which are now sick,” Assadullah, a local herder from Moqar District, said.

However, in the capital, Kabul, the repercussions of cold weather on livestock are still not being felt.

“There is no shortage of animals here, but I’ve heard there is a problem in the north,” Mohammad Gul said from outside the Kolola Pushta square livestock market. He added that livestock prices traditionally rise at this time of year due to heavy snows and the inability of farmers to bring their animals to market.

FAO response

With so many animals dying over such a short period of time, the possibility of meat prices rising further is now greater.

“We are very concerned. Many of these farmers are already vulnerable. This will make them more vulnerable and more food insecure,” Tekeste Tekie, country representative for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told IRIN in Kabul.

In response, FAO, in collaboration with the Afghan government, has dispatched 20 metric tonnes (mt) of feed to Herat, one of the worst affected provinces.

“This is a reasonable amount because we need about one kilogramme of grain per day per cow or half a kilogramme for smaller animals,” Tekie said, adding that the grain would be mixed with fodder herders already have. “Traditionally, Herat is not so cold, but this year it has been unusually cold – and people were less prepared this time around.”

FAO is also in the process of sending 60mt of feed to Bamyan Province and has appealed to donors for another 1,500mt.

In addition, the agency is working towards procuring antibiotics to treat up to one million animals in those areas where animals have caught infectious diseases because of the cold.

MAIL has already made an urgent appeal for US$4 million for the country’s affected livestock owners, but maintains that an additional US$15 million will be needed.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), this has been one of the harshest winters in 30 years in Afghanistan, with close to 900 winter-related human deaths in Herat, Farah, Badghis and Ghor provinces being reported.

With road access to many affected areas still blocked by snow, the true fallout of this year’s winter is yet to be realised.

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February 27, 2008 at 5:15 am

Afghan police officers graduate training

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HERAT, Afghanistan, Feb. 25 (UPI) — Afghanistan’s focused district development initiative graduated its first class of Afghan National Police in Herat Thursday.

The Afghan government’s district development project is an effort to improve policing in the country district by district. The reform initiative was developed by the Afghan Interior Ministry. Officials say 143 newly trained Afghan police graduated Thursday, marking the first class to graduate in Herat, the Combined Joint Task Force-82 reported.

Designed to address issues of inadequate training, poor equipment and corruption, the Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan developed the district-focused program taught by civilian police instructors at eight regional training centers throughout the country, to make it easier for the police to provide public safety and security for local Afghan communities.

Officials say the officers from the western Afghanistan district of Bala-Beluk graduated Thursday from the program’s phase three, in which “their entire district was reorganized, re-equipped and retrained during an eight-week course,” the release said.

The final stage of the program, phase four, involves re-inserting the newly trained police officers back into their districts.

“The real test will be this next week, when the police go back to their districts and we see how the people perceive them,” Army Col. Peter Foreman, deputy to the commanding general for police development for Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, said in a statement.

Education fact sheet + Questions & answers

Source: United Nations Children’s Fund / February 25, 2008

Afghanistan

Average adult illiteracy rate: 71% (female illiteracy as high as 86%)

– Up to 30% of primary school age children working to support families

– Early marriage affects many young girls (preventing access to education and increasing health risks)

UNICEF supports The Ministry of Education in the following areas.

– Girls’ education especially in rural areas(communitybased schools)

– School construction

– Teachers’ training

– Curriculum development

– Capacity building

– Women’s literacy

Key achievements in 2007

We witnessed over 5.7 million children going to school, the construction of 113 schools were completed in 2007 with UNICEF’s support. In addition over 48,000 women completed their literacy courses that they had started in 2006.

And

– 3,643 Community Based Schools (CBSs) for over 140,000 students with no access to formal schools in the remote villages were supported.

– Afghanistan Girls’ Education Initiative (AGEI) was launched under the umbrella of UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI). With over 20 partners, including line ministries, UN and donor agencies, NGOs and research organizations work plan for 2008-2010 was drafted.

– National de-worming round for 5.6 million grades 1-9 school aged children

– One sample chapter for 100 titles of textbooks books (Science, Math, Social Studies, Languages, and Geography) developed by Afghan authors with the technical support of experts in Jordon. Forty-four Afghan curriculum experts were trained for one month in Jordon; this process was jointly supported by UNESCO.

– Orientation guide on newly developed textbooks of grade 3 and 6 was developed and 80 master trainers from 34 provinces were trained. o 2,901 literacy courses for 77,998 female adult learners were supported throughout the country.

– Teaching and learning materials (TLMs) to 5.16 million children (grade 1-6) and 96,428 teachers distributed.

– 530 classroom tents, 4,313 blackboards and 3,155 floor mats were distributed.

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February 27, 2008 at 5:13 am

Posted in Security

Afghanistan’s Pop Idol breaks barriers

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By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul
Monday, 25 February 2008

In the corner of the kebab shop a small television with a crackly picture draws everyone’s eye as they plunge their Afghan nan bread into oily sauce and slurp up a chunk of meat.

The cross-legged diners lean to one side as they peer around a sheep’s carcass that momentarily blocks the screen as it’s passed from the freezer to the hook from which it then hangs in the window.

It’s nine o’clock on Friday night and Afghan Star is on the TV, with just a handful of wannabe singers left, competing for fame and fortune in the glitzy and glamorous Afghan version of the talent show Pop Idol.

It’s a huge hit on one of the national private stations, Tolo TV, but it’s controversial in a country that’s still very conservative.

Liberal stance

Most of the contestants who’ve not yet been voted out are men, but there is still one woman left.

Lima Sahaar is from the southern province of Kandahar and each week she travels up to the studios in Kabul for the show with her mother.

Her hair is usually covered with a scarf, her face not. The fact that a young woman from the birthplace of the Taleban is on stage performing each week says a lot about the way Afghanistan has changed in six years.

Taking such an obvious liberal stance can be dangerous, and although she explained she had the support of her family, there are many people opposed to her.

“I’m not afraid,” she told me. “Afghan people don’t care about risks or dangers.

“I think all of Afghanistan is in danger, but if we worry about those dangers we can’t move on and the country’s not going to develop.”

She’s already got the precocious traits of a young star – the dismissive attitude, the mobile phone texting while we talk – and the hallmarks of a manager looming large in the shape of her forceful mother.

She’s not just the only woman left, she’s also the only Pashtun, and in a country where ethnicity still means so much, she’s almost guaranteed to stay in the show a little longer at least.

Modern beat

At the rehearsals the night before the weekly studio recording it was good to see the mix of young Afghans, their sights set on a better future for themselves.

They each stand up and perform this week’s traditional song in front of their competitors – a modern beat accompanying them on the keyboard.

The presenter, Daud Sediqi, was a medical student when the Taleban were in power, but he also used to be an underground television and video repair man when TV was banned by the oppressive government.

“I always wanted to be in the music industry and now my life has totally turned around,” he said.

And indeed it has – he’s now one of the most famous people in Afghanistan with a huge crowd clamouring to get in to see his programme every week.

There’s barbed wire around the entrance to the Afghan wedding hall that has been temporarily converted into a TV studio.

That, and the armed guards clutching their AK-47s and patting down those holding a golden ticket to the show, indicates how much further the country still has to go.

‘Sleeping talent’

The women go straight upstairs and take their seats first and then the male majority push and shove, whistling and shouting excitedly and the men with guns and bodyguard style earpieces let them through one by one.

“Afghan Star is very good as it shows all the sleeping talent across Afghanistan,” one young man in the crowd told me in good English.

“The young generation before, during the decades of war, could not stand up and show what they had, but now all the young generation can show their talents. Their talent is therefore very important for everyone.”

And another laughed when I asked if this would have been possible under the Taleban.

“Back then we couldn’t even listen to music in our own homes,” he said.

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February 27, 2008 at 5:12 am

Posted in Culture and Arts

How he was sentenced to die

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‘What they call my trial lasted just four minutes in a closed court. I was told that I was guilty and the decision was that I was going to die’

By Kim Sengupta in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan

The Independent (UK) / Monday, 25 February 2008

Clutching the bars at his prison, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh recalls how his life unravelled. “There was no question of me getting a lawyer to represent me in the case; in fact I was not even able to speak on my own defence.”

The 23-year-old student, whose death sentence for downloading a report on women’s rights from the internet has become an international cause célèbre, was speaking to The Independent at his jail in Mazar-i-Sharif – the first time the outside world has heard his own account of his shattering experience. In a voice soft, somewhat hesitant, he said: “The judges had made up their mind about the case without me. The way they talked to me, looked at me, was the way they look at a condemned man. I wanted to say ‘this is wrong, please listen to me’, but I was given no chance to explain.”

For Mr Kambaksh the four-minute hearing has led to four months of incarceration, sharing a 10 by 12 metre cell with 34 others — murderers, robbers and terrorists – and having the threat of execution constantly hanging over him. His fate appeared sealed when the Afghan senate passed a motion, proposed by Sibghatullkah Mojeddeid, a key ally of the President Hamid Karzai, confirming the death sentence, although this was later withdrawn after domestic and international protests.

I spoke to Mr Kambaksh at Balkh prison, under the watchful eyes of the warders in their olive green Russian-era uniforms. Here 360 prisoners are packed into a facility for 200, in conditions even the Afghan prison authorities acknowledge are “unacceptable”. The inmates, who include 22 women, many convicted of deserting their husbands and adultery, sit around with the forlorn demeanour of those caught up in a vast bureaucratic system with little chance of an early exit.

Since The Independent exposed the case of Mr Kambaksh, eminent public figures such as the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. and Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, have lobbied Mr Karzai to reprieve him. A petition launched by this newspaper calling for justice for Mr Kambaksh has gathered nearly 90,000 signatures.

Standing outside his cell, Mr Kambaksh looked pale and tired, hunched into his brown leather jacket over a dusty white shalwar kameez against the cold, cutting wind of the northern mountains. He had, in the past, been attacked by fundamentalist prisoners at the instigation of a guard who had said he was a heretic, but the intimidation has tailed off in recent weeks. “I am very thankful for what The Independent has done and the publicity in this case. Most of my fellow prisoners know now that I had not done anything so terrible to deserve this, and they have supported me. Some of the guards have also been kind.

“There are still some extremists who insult me, but I am afraid they are the kind who will not change their minds.”

Mr Kambaksh’s ordeal began in mid- October after the downloading of the document about Islam and women’s rights from an Iranian website. He was questioned first by some teachers of religion from the university where he is a student of journalism.

“They said that some other students had said that I had written the article myself. Of course I denied this, I also asked them who these other students were, but they would not give me the names. They have since repeated these accusations, but they have never told me who these students are. I do not know if they exist …” His voice trailed off as a guard came and stood listening to him. Not all believe in Mr Kambaksh’s innocence.

On 27 October he was arrested at the offices of Jahan-e-Naw, a newspaper for which he had carried out reporting assignments. “It was about 10 in the morning. They told me that one of the directors of the NDS [the Afghan national intelligence service] wanted to see me. I was taken to a police station and sat around until 3 o’clock when they said they were arresting me over the website entry. When I protested they said they were doing this for my own safety, otherwise I may be killed.”

Mr Kambaksh received visits from his family in the weeks which followed but says that he was not allowed any access to a lawyer. “My family were upset, my father is so worried, I have seen him age in the last few months. I keep telling them to be strong.”

On 6 December he was brought before a court in Mazar where the charges against him, accusing him of blasphemy and breaching other tenets of Islamic law, were read out. But then the proceedings concluded without any evidence being presented before the court.

The next hearing, on 12 January, was cancelled after Mr Kambaksh became ill. He arrived at the court at the next session, on 22 January expecting a date to be set for the trial, only to hear numbing news. “They normally sit for just a few hours in the afternoon. I was taken into the court just before it shut at 4 o’clock. There were three judges and a prosecutor and some details of the case were repeated. One of the judges then said to me that I have been found guilty and the sentence was death. I tried to argue, but, as I said, they talked to me like a criminal, they just said I would be taken back to the prison.

“I was totally shocked. Afterwards I sat and tried to calculate just how long they had taken to judge my case. I thought at first it was three minutes, but then I worked out it was four. That was it, I have been in prison ever since. All I can hope now is that something can be done at the appeal. I would really like the appeal to be heard in Kabul, I think I will get a better hearing there.”

Following the international outcry over the case, and the campaign by Mr Kambaksh’s supporters, Afghanistan’s Supreme Court has said that the appeal may take place at Kabul, away from local justice in Mazar, and that the hearing this time would be in the open. Justice Bahahuddin Baha also stated that the student would have the right to legal representation.

“I think if I get to put over my point of view then the judges will see I have done nothing wrong. But then I was entitled under the constitution to have a lawyer and put my defence the last time and that did not happen. I have heard that President Karzai has taken an interest in my case. He can reprieve me, but I do not know what kind of pressure he is under.

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February 27, 2008 at 5:11 am