Afghanistan's slow progress
Frontline Volume 22 - Issue 13 June 18 - July 01 2005
Afghanistan's slow progress
recently in Kabul
The war-torn country is slowly coming out of the dark days of Taliban
rule, but its reconstruction and the emancipation of its women will
take a long time despite international efforts.
PICTURES: RASHEEDA BHAGAT
All smiles, in the face of adversity. The Taliban legacy of
gender-based discrimination still has a strong influence on Afghan
THE Baghe Zanana (Women's Garden) in Kabul is about the only place in
war-ravaged Afghanistan today where women can walk in freely, throw
away their burqas, chat with friends and partake of a picnic lunch as
their children play in the park. Every Friday a few hundred women and
children assemble here to let down their hair, and remind themselves
that it has been over three years since their worst tormentors, the
Taliban, have gone. The regime that had devastated the lives of women
and deprived them of any human dignity whatsoever - forcing them to don
the burqa (known as chadri in Afghanistan), quit their jobs and take
their daughters out of schools and colleges, and making it haram
(forbidden) for a woman to step out of her house without being
accompanied by a man - is history. Many educated and qualified women,
who had braved nearly 15 years of conflict and violence under Soviet
occupation and the mujahideen regime, fled the country during the
six-year Taliban rule which began in 1995.
This May, the Baghe Zanana got special visitors - three Afghan women
doctors who have been living and working in Germany for almost a
decade. They had come to their home country to check out for themselves
the ground situation. Prior to the visit to the garden, the doctors had
taken a tour of Kabul's dilapidated and ill-equipped hospitals that are
struggling to offer even minimal health care to the sick. They saw the
pathetic state of the buildings, the inadequate infrastructure,
outdated medical equipment and inadequate medicines, and above all,
doctors from foreign countries, including Indian doctors, working
against all the odds to save lives.
"When they saw so many women assembled in the women's garden - women
and children chattering, laughing, spreading their picnic lunch under
the trees, and even singing - they made an important decision," said a
woman administrator at the Baghe Zanana. "They took out their German
passports and tore them to bits, saying we are not going to leave
Afghanistan. It needs us."
But the challenges they, or anybody else involved in the rebuilding of
the war-ravaged country, face are daunting, to say the least.
Afghanistan today presents the picture of a bruised, broken and
brutalised country that seems to be administered more by international
aid organisations - mainly United Nations' agencies - than the Hamid
Karzai government. With the road network a pale shadow of what it once
was, almost all non-governmental organisations (NGO) depend on
landcruisers for travel; in fact, the landmark white vehicle has become
the symbol of the NGOs here. Countless landcruisers crisscross Kabul's
roads and the miserable, almost unmotorable, tracks in interior
Afghanistan. Afghanistan is still "unstable", says Carol Martin,
Programme Director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA),
which was established in 1980 as a humanitarian solidarity agency to
support the Afghan people against Soviet occupation.
The Taliban has destroyed Afghan women's confidence to such an extent
that it is almost impossible to find a woman on Kabul's streets who is
willing to talk to a stranger.
The SCA is the biggest international aid organisation working in
Afghanistan's 21 provinces. It has an annual budget of $22 million, a
portion of which is raised by the 3,400 members of the committee, with
the rest coming from Sida (the Swedish government aid agency), the
European Union and the U.N. According to Carol Martin, there have been
times in the last 20 years, when the SCA has virtually taken over the
role of the government in administering the country."
When asked if she would call today's Afghanistan a democracy or an
occupied country, she said: "Well, there is going to be a big
conference in Stockholm in November 2005 to debate this question. But I
can tell you one thing: SCA does not accept funding from the United
States government because many of our members think that Afghanistan is
under U.S. occupation."
She herself thinks that the reconstruction of the country will "take a
long time, because this is a totally devastated country and there is no
real law-making government in Afghanistan. This is what causes a lot of
frustration among the Afghan people."
The World Bank's country chief in Afghanistan, Jean Mazurelle, was more
forthright when asked about the prospects of the fragile peace in
Afghanistan holding. Mazurelle, who has been in Afghanistan for a year,
feels that unless the Afghan government and the international community
speed up reconstruction efforts and make the change "visible", the
people's patience will run out. He "cannot understand why the
international community did not take care of this country much earlier.
Why did we wait till the situation came to the point of the Taliban and
the Soviet occupation before that? I can understand the resentment of
the Afghans that they had to wait till 9/11 before the international
community took notice of Afghanistan. An Afghan told me that 9/11 was a
lottery ticket for them, and they would not give away this lottery
ticket. I felt very sad to hear this but can understand their
resentment against the entire world and why they want to be
Mazurelle admitted that international organisations like his were
perverting the labour market and wages because "there is so much
competition among us to get the competent and educated people".
OVER the past 25 years, educated Afghans fled the country, and three
years after the ouster of the Taliban regime, a small segment of them,
such as the Afghan-German doctors mentioned above, have begun to
return. But they have to accept the reality of earning a fraction of
the money they used to make in the U.S. or Europe. Majid Nabizada is
one of them. He has returned from France, where he earned 2,200 euro
(Rs.1,23,000) a month, to work at the Lycee Esteqlal High School in the
heart of Kabul. This was battered by decades of war but has now been
rebuilt and is run by the French. His present salary is a meagre $60
(Rs.2,600) and to pay his monthly rent of $250 (Rs. 10,700) - as well
as a year's advance - he had to fall back upon his savings from his
22-year stay in France.
But other teachers do not have this luxury and so have to take on two
jobs - they work as taxi drivers or with NGOs - to make ends meet. The
plight of students is much worse. Most of the country's schools were
destroyed by long years of violence and in interior Afghanistan classes
are being held in dilapidated buildings without doors and windows, and
sometimes not even a roof. What this would mean in a country with
extreme winters and summers can be imagined.
Wali Mohammed, director of the Lycee Esteqlal High School, explains how
the "Taliban destroyed our education system", forcing qualified
teachers to flee the country. It warms your heart to see neatly
dressed, bright-eyed young girls in the school library. But in this
Islamic country co-education is rare and girls will have to leave this
school, where 5,000 children receive free education, after Class III to
go to an exclusive girls' school.
Girls' education is another dismal story. During its six-year rule, the
Taliban banned girls' education and closed all girls' schools. While
the younger girls have returned to school, those in their teens are
reluctant to come back because they will now have classmates at least
six years younger. The Afghan administration will have to figure out a
way of getting these young women back into mainstream education through
ON the gender front, any visitor to Afghanistan cannot but come away
with a heavy heart. The Taliban left the scene in November 2001, but
they destroyed the Afghan women's confidence so totally that it is
almost impossible to find a woman on Kabul's streets - whether dressed
in the burqa or without it - who is willing to talk to a stranger. Even
if a woman knows English, she will pretend not to understand what you
are saying and walk on, dampening your initial feel-good feeling at
seeing quite a few women sans the burqa in Kabul's bazaars.
Parveen, an activist of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of
Afghanistan (RAWA), which had put up a valiant fight for the rights of
women during the worst of times and particularly during the Taliban
era, points out that "even though the situation on the gender front has
improved in comparison to the Taliban era, much more needs to be done".
The young woman, who left the country during the Taliban years and
worked for RAWA from Peshawar in Pakistan, is sceptical about the
"liberal stance" taken by the Karzai government on the gender front and
feels this is more out of pressure from the U.S. "We find most people
in the administration, including some of the top Ministers in the
government, fundamentalist at heart. Right now they are just paying lip
service to women's emancipation to please the Americans."
She adds that the Afghan woman is most persecuted within her own home.
"The father, the husband, the brother... these are the people who
torture her the most; in many homes there is a lot of domestic
violence, the women are forced to wear the burqa and girls are not
allowed to go to school or college or to work." RAWA has also charged
that the country's top judiciary is packed with male chauvinists who
have gone on record as saying that a woman can never be equal to a man.
Commenting on the gender situation and the role the international
community can play in improving the women's lot, Mazurelle says this is
an area where the Western aid organisations would have to tread
cautiously. "It's going to take a lot of time, particularly because we
could be perceived as Westerners imposing Western values. We have to be
very careful not to create any backlash from people who say the
Westerners are trying to unveil our women." But, adds the Frenchman,
India is much better placed to make a difference on this front.
He is all praise for the role India is playing in the reconstruction of
Afghanistan, particularly in putting the administration back on its
feet. "I have a lot of colleagues coming here from the World Bank in
Delhi. In their interaction with the Afghans, they are respectful of
the environment here, but at the same time they're able to convince the
Afghans that things can be changed in relation to gender issues. My
Indian female colleagues are very good at dealing with the Afghans. In
the future, we'd like to see the Afghans looking at India's development
path rather than that of Iran or Pakistan. Indian society is a tolerant
society, unlike the countries surrounding Afghanistan," Mazurelle notes.
At the Lycee Esteqlal High School in Kabul, which has co-education up to Class III.
All Indians visiting Afghanistan are in for a pleasant surprise.
Afghans just love India and Indians; not only Indian films and actors
Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, but also the country's record in
economic development, education, health care and promotion of a liberal
Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Rakesh Sood pointed out that the
Government of India had put in $600 million from its aid budget to help
the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The Indian effort is visible
all over Afghanistan. "We were one of the first to get involved in
infrastructure building across the country when many donors were
hesitant to go out of Kabul owing to the security situation," he says.
So whether it is the rebuilding of the $90 million Salma Hydel Project;
the laying of hundreds of kilometres of roads and power transmission
lines; the setting up of Afghanistan's first cold storage plant in
Kandahar so that this fruit bowl can process and export its produce;
the reconstruction of the famous Habibia School in Kabul where Karzai
was once a student; the setting up of CDMA telephone lines at a cost of
$10 million; the reconstruction of the 250-bed Indira Gandhi Institute
of Child Health, the only paediatric hospital in Kabul, at a cost of $3
million; or the training of teachers and Afghan government staff, India
While neighbours like Iran and Pakistan are looked upon with suspicion,
if not hatred, India is admired for a host of reasons. "Look at your
education system; you turn out such fine students from your
institutions," says Haji Abdul Hakeem, who owns two carpet shops in
Chicken Street, Kabul's famous shopping area. "And unlike other
countries, India has never done anything to hurt Afghanistan's
interests. You're already helping us, but the best help India can give
Afghanistan is to pick up our boys - from Kabul, Mazar, Kandahar,
Bamiyan and so on - and give them education in India."
If Indian education is held at a premium, Indian doctors and medicines
are considered priceless. On our flight from Delhi to Kabul, there were
at least two medical teams bound for Afghanistan. While the private
players, particularly from the heart care institutions, are scouting
for business, the Government of India posts doctors from the Central
Government Health Services to put in a stint in Afghanistan.
Sood said that five Indian medical teams were working in hot spots such
as Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. When asked if security was not a
concern, he said: "People just love Indian doctors and trust them and
their judgment implicitly. We find that there is great faith in both
Indian diagnostic skills and Indian medicine, because there is a lot of
adulterated medicine in the markets here. The general perception is
that to get well one must go to an Indian doctor and take medicines
from him. Sometimes when medical supplies run out, people will wait for
a day or two for medicines from India rather than buy from the local