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In Afghanistan, U.S. shifts strategy on women's rights as it eyes wider priorities

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2011; 5:42 PM

When the U.S. Agency for International Development sought bids last March for a $140 million land reform program in Afghanistan, it insisted that the winning contractor meet specific goals to promote women's rights: The number of deeds granting women title had to increase by 50 percent; there would have to be regular media coverage on women's land rights; and teaching materials for secondary schools and universities would have to include material on women's rights.

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Before the contract was awarded, USAID overhauled the initiative, stripping out those concrete targets. Now, the contractor only has to perform "a written evaluation of Afghan inheritance laws," assemble "summaries of input from women's groups" and draft amendments to the country's civil code.

The removal of specific women's rights requirements, which also took place in a $600 million municipal government program awarded last year, reflects a shift in USAID's approach in Afghanistan. Instead of setting ambitious goals to improve the status of Afghan women, the agency is tilting toward more attainable measures.

"If you're targeting an issue, you need to target it in a way you can achieve those objectives," said J. Alexander Thier, director of USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs. "The women's issue is one where we need hardheaded realism. There are things we can do, and do well. But if we become unrealistic and overfocused . . . we get ourselves in trouble."

A senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy said changes to the land program also stem from a desire at the top levels of the Obama administration to triage the war and focus on the overriding goal of ending the conflict.

"Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities," said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations. "There's no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down."

The changes come at a time of growing concern among rights advocates that the modest gains Afghan women have achieved since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001 are being rolled back.

New rules being drafted by President Hamid Karzai's government would bar private safe houses for women who are fleeing abuse and place new rules on those seeking refuge in the country's 14 public shelters, including forcing women to submit to medical examinations and evicting them if their families want them back. The proposed rules would also bring the shelters - funded by international organizations, Western governments and private donors - under the direct control of the Afghan government.

Women's advocates say the restrictions on shelters, which have been embraced by religious conservatives sympathetic to the Taliban, are an early sign of the compromises the Karzai government is willing to make to reach a peace deal with insurgents. The advocates fear that reconciliation with the Taliban - a goal supported by the U.S. government - will result in a significant erosion of women's rights.

In an effort to mollify those concerns, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised last month that the United States "will not . . . support a political process that undoes the social progress that has been made in the past decade."

Despite the changes in the land reform program, USAID says it is not backing down from helping Afghan women. The agency recently issued a new strategy that calls for incorporating assistance to women into all of its Afghan programs.

"The women of Afghanistan find themselves disconnected from one another, lacking opportunities to participate in the political and economic life of the nation," the strategy states. "We must support the women of Afghanistan as agents of change."


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