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The house or the grave

Monday, October 24, 2011 - 12:06

A combination of poverty and politics makes life for women in Afghanistan notoriously difficult. As US and UK troops withdraw, and the government enters into talks with the Taliban, what does this mean for the future of women?

This October marks 10 years since British and US forces entered Afghanistan and helped bring down the repressive Taliban regime. A vast mountainous country of remote villages, minimal infrastructure and deep rooted poverty, Afghanistan has struggled to find peace and security ever since.

As UK and US forces now start to withdraw, the international community and the Afghan government have revealed they are holding talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups in an attempt to forge a power-sharing government. What does this mean for the country’s citizens – especially its women?

A new ActionAid survey of 1,000 Afghan women reveals that a massive 86% are worried about a return to Taliban-style government. And with good reason – they remember all too well what life was like under this repressive regime. Belquis, a primary school teacher from Mazar-e- Sharif, could not work or even leave the house without a male relative accompanying her the last time the Taliban were in power.

They made announcements by loudspeaker that girls’ schools should shut down, they announced that the best place for a woman is in the house or the grave. My school closed and we had to stop going to work. All the girls stayed at home. It was a dark time.

Life for women under the Taliban has been well documented. Going out to work or school was forbidden and access to healthcare was difficult. They could not leave the house without a male relative and, even with this escort, had to wear a burkha outside the home.

“We were so relieved when the international forces came to Afghanistan,” says Belquis. “That was the day our lives changed. Now we are fearful that things will get worse when they leave.”

A new constitution

After the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan put in place a new constitution that enshrined equal rights for men and women. Women are free to be educated and to work. They serve as government ministers and MPs and work as doctors, teachers, professors, entrepreneurs and lawyers. These are significant achievements.

However, there are still huge challenges. Many women are still denied basic rights and only 13% are literate. Forced and child marriages are common while, according to a UN survey, 87% of all women suffer domestic abuse. Life expectancy for women is around 44 years – more than 20 years lower than the world average. On top of this, any improvements that have been seen are far more pronounced in cities than in rural areas, where most people live.