USAID announces aid program for Afghan women

The U.S. Agency for International Development announced a new $200 million assistance program for Afghan women Thursday, amid fears that gains in women’s rights and development made over the past decade will dissipate after the withdrawal of foreign combat troops next year.

The five-year investment is the largest to date by USAID aimed specifically at advancing women’s interests. The program, called Promote, envisions an additional $200 million in contributions by other international donors.

“We aren’t setting our sights low. We aren’t scaling back our ambitions,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said of the program, which will fund scholarships, investment in women-owned business and organizations that promote them, as well as push for the inclusion of women in the civil service and in elective office.

“Many people ask me and others what will happen to Afghanistan when we complete a military transition,” Shah said in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The answer is, it depends. This is a critical moment for Afghanistan and for our partnership in the region.”

Women have made large strides in Afghanistan over the past decade. The country has seen a significant decrease in maternal mortality, from 1,600 per 100,000 births to 327, between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Bank. Prenatal health-care coverage has increased from 6 percent to 39 percent, and institutional deliveries from 7 percent to 43 percent.

During the Taliban rule in the 1990s, girls were virtually prohibited from receiving a formal education; now, about one-third of Afghan girls attend primary school. At least 200,000 Afghan women now have at least a secondary school diploma, some university study or a university degree, according to USAID.

But “extreme forms of discrimination remain part of the day-to-day experience of most Afghan women, and violence against women is common and largely unpunished,” according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. “Half of all girls are still not in school and female literacy remains extremely low. Child marriage and forced marriage are common, with 39 percent of girls married before age 18.”

Many Afghan women have expressed concerns about both the departure of U.S. troops and reports of peace negotiations that could allot the Taliban some measure of political power, particularly in southern Afghanistan, the group’s homeland.

Under the Taliban, women were forbidden to work or leave their homes without wearing a head-to-toe veil and being accompanied by a male relative.

The Afghan constitution, written with U.S. guidance after the Taliban was ousted in late 2001, guarantees the rights of women and minorities, and respect for its provisions is one of the outcomes the United States has deemed necessary for any future negotiations with the Taliban.

“I think there’s a very strong feeling in Kabul these days that the U.S. has stopped caring about what Afghanistan looks like in 2015 or in 2020, that they’ve had enough, they’re tired of it,” Heather Barr, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview with CNN.

Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly supported women’s rights, activists say his actions are often at odds with his words. Last year, Karzai endorsed a set of religious guidelines calling for full segregation of the sexes and implying that violence against women “can sometimes be justified,” the Human Rights Watch report said.

In May, a parliamentary debate over Karzai’s 2009 presidential decree outlawing violence against women adjourned after 15 minutes of argument and has not been restarted. The law, by most accounts, has been implemented only spottily.

Among other worrisome signs highlighted by activists was the decision this month by an appeals court to release three Afghans convicted of torturing and imprisoning a young girl who had been forced to marry an older man at age 12. The three, relatives of the girl, Sahar Gul, had served only one year of a 15-year sentence.

A proposed revision of Afghanistan’s criminal procedure code, which is before the lower house of parliament, would prohibit relatives from testifying against the accused at trial, effectively preventing women and girls from speaking against their abusers.

Although women are officially welcomed in the police and armed forces, they have reported repeated harassment. Early this month, one of the nation’s most senior female police officers was ambushed and killed as she left her home in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

In other actions this month, the lower house of parliament approved revisions in the electoral law that reduced from 25 percent to 20 percent the number of seats guaranteed for female representatives in provincial councils, and Karzai appointed a former Taliban official as one of five commissioners on a newly established human rights body.

The official, Abdul Rahman Hotak, who had worked for the Education Ministry and edited a Taliban newspaper, has said he opposes the anti-violence law.

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