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World must stay engaged in Afghanistan, or hard-won progress will be erased

Source: Women for Afghan Women - Tue, 17 Dec 2013 10:11 AM
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Afghan women walk past the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul December 11, 2013. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Two weeks ago, two staff members from Women for Afghan Women (WAW) were kidnapped by Taliban thugs in the northern Afghan province of Faryab. They were blindfolded, handcuffed and threatened for 36 hours. During that time they could hear their kidnappers discussing plans to kill them.

It was only through the leadership of WAW staff, intervention by local village elders, and perhaps some luck that they were ultimately released. The next day, six staff members from a partner organisation in Faryab were killed. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for both acts.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has progressed immensely despite the enormous obstacles present at the onset of its transition. In just over a decade, notable advances have been made, particularly for women. Afghan women and girls are now equal under the constitution. Millions are attending school and have access (albeit limited) to economic, social, and political rights.

The progress made in Afghanistan depends to a large extent on the support of numerous governments and civil society groups, but it would not have been possible without the support and buy-in of the Afghan people. The village elders in Faryab who negotiated the release of the captured workers are examples of that support.

Millions of Afghans have used the opportunities provided by the presence of the international community to better their own lives and their country. Challenges certainly persist in all areas, but like other places in the world wrought by conflict and instability, the Afghan people are experiencing the growing pains of rebuilding their country, educating their population, and building the foundation for a free and fair society. Such efforts are bound to take time.

At its current juncture, Afghanistan is vulnerable to regressing, particularly in the area of women’s rights. Every day, the Taliban are gaining power; their presence is increasingly felt in villages around the country. They are even being welcomed into the political sphere, with the international community and the government of President Hamid Karzai encouraging “peace” negotiations despite the fact that they are intensifying attacks against civilians and groups they deem a threat.

Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers are trying to curb women’s rights by revising the country’s penal code. These disturbing developments, coupled with the impending troop pullout, have made many Afghans fearful that the hard-won progress will be erased. These fears are particularly prevalent among women and girls.

We believe that abandoning Afghanistan would be a colossal mistake that will lead to more war in the country, cost additional lives and result in an increased financial burden - a greater price than maintaining steady engagement.

Since 2007, WAW has provided support to nearly 10,000 women and children in Afghanistan. Every year, the number of women and children we serve increases, as more and more women and girls learn about their legal rights. None of this would have been possible under the Taliban regime and would be equally impossible should the country return to even to a vestige of its previous state.

Should the world turn its back on Afghanistan, our clients - like Sahar Gul, a young girl who was tortured by her in-laws for refusing to become a prostitute, and Gul Meena, a young woman whose brother attempted to kill her for running away from an abusive husband more than twice her age - would be forced to endure abuse. They would be murdered, or hopeless, they would commit suicide.

Others in our shelters - like 18-year-old Mumtaz, who almost died after being attacked with acid for refusing to marry the son of a local warlord, and 20-year-old Gulsika, who was exchanged in marriage at age 13 and shot in her stomach nine times by her husband because he no longer wanted to be married to her - would have nowhere to turn to rebuild their lives.

Hundreds of children living in WAW’s children’s support centres would languish with their mothers in the Afghan prison system, with no access to education or the outside world.

The access to justice many thousands of women and girls now have and the solutions to family crises WAW counselors help Afghan families achieve could all be lost should the U.S. and the world walk away from Afghanistan.

To ensure that the enormous investments of life and money that have been poured into Afghanistan in the past 12 years are not lost, we must preserve our engagement and continue to help build the peace and stability the majority of Afghan people want.

The global community has repeatedly promised Afghan women that it would not allow the darkest period in Afghan history to repeat itself. This promise must be fulfilled. The lives of millions of Afghan women, children, and families are depending on it.

Manizha Naderi is the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which employs nearly 500 local staff members and operates shelters and centres in 10 provinces across Afghanistan.

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