Female Afghan Minister Pushes for Rights

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 22, 2006; 4:40 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Five years after the Taliban's fall, women aren't beaten if they leave home without a male relative. Girls can go to school, and a quarter of Afghan parliamentarians are women _ as mandated by law. But life remains bleak: Many women and girls face domestic violence and forced marriage in this conservative, violence-plagued country. In many provinces where the government wields little power, life for women remains as it was during the rule of the Taliban.

"We've had three decades of war in Afghanistan, which have had very bad consequences for women," Minister for Women's Affairs Hussn Banu Ghazanfar said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It takes time to solve these problems."

Ghazanfar, the fourth female minister since the fall of the Taliban, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai in August. But like her predecessors, she is up against provincial warlords who continue to refuse women and girls the right to education and even to leave their homes.

While she enjoys the support of Karzai and was approved for her post in a parliamentary vote, her ministry is regarded as having "minimal influence on government policy," according to a recent report from the international rights organization Womankind.

Ghazanfar did not comment directly to the AP on her prospects for success, focusing instead on the ways she's working to strengthen her ministry.

She said the most pressing issues facing women are violence and their low education levels, particularly in the rural areas that are home to most of Afghanistan's 30 million people. Only about 15 percent of Afghan women are literate.

According to the report by Womankind, domestic violence affects "an overwhelming majority" of Afghan women and girls.

Ghazanfar said she's trying to draft laws making violence against women illegal, but the legislation must be approved by many former warlords who are now lawmakers in the Afghan parliament.

"The elimination of violence against women does not work if we just conduct seminars and workshops," Ghazanfar said. "If we create specific laws to protect women from violence, women will have more confidence."

Legislation is also in the works to eliminate forced marriages and to create safe shelters for homeless women.

And the ministry is working with international aid donors to provide vocational training for women in cooking, tailoring and handicraft making.

Unlike most Afghan women, Ghazanfar is not married and has no children. But she, too, was sequestered to her home during the reign of the Taliban, which came to power in the late 1990s and was forced out by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 for hosting Osama bin Laden.

The 49-year-old former linguistics and literature dean at Kabul University spent those years in her large library and translated four books from Russian into Dari, one of Afghanistan's main languages. Unlike many women here, she had the support of her family to pursue her endeavors.

Ghazanfar says she hopes that all Afghan women one day will have access to education.

"It's not important which position I have, but it's more important that I'm working for women _ the most needy women of the world," Ghazanfar said. "I'm really happy here, working for the women of Afghanistan."

© 2006 The Associated Press