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US Promises to Afghan Women Unfulfilled

7 May 2002

If you had been forced into invisibility, you would value a talisman that proves you exist.

So as Afghanistan's women emerge from years of repression by the Taliban, they list among their many needs a simple one: identity cards.

They do not have them. For now, they can participate without them in the nation's loya jirga, the preliminary voting for a representative council. But, says Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations' development fund for women, without identity cards the women might be kept from voting for a permanent government in future elections.

"There is a fear they will be pushed out," said Heyzer, who has just returned from a 10-day trip to assess the status of Afghan women. "They know how easy it is to make any excuse to be pushed back to the margins."

They were pinup girls in the public-relations fight against terror. A few months ago, they were invited to the White House, to Capitol Hill, to Washington cocktail parties - even seated, at the president's request, in one of those made-for-TV chairs at the State of the Union address. We used the Afghan women, with their history of brutalization under the Taliban, to show there was a purpose to the war in Afghanistan that went beyond uprooting people at war with America.

Now the women emerge to lives of greater dignity, but undiminished need. Identity cards are among the plainest provisions they require.

In Kabul, skilled women have returned to work as teachers and health-care workers. Outside the capital, bleakness is more prevalent than promise.

Some communities have been reduced to collections of mud huts and tents, Heyzer said in an interview. Finding care for a sick child requires a two-hour walk to a clinic. Many widows - there are thousands, after two decades of war - are beggars.

"There are all these widows and female-headed households that have no means of support whatsoever," said Heyzer, who took her findings to the U.S. State Department yesterday.

The women's marginal existence is made more precarious because they are just not safe.

Security outside Kabul is a shambles. Rival warlords continue their ancient battles for regional triumph, fighting even to prevent authorities from Afghanistan's interim government from taking their posts. Men returning from refugee camps linger all day without access to work, but with easy access to ubiquitous arms.

The much-ballyhooed foreign-aid package agreed on in Tokyo last January is not yet delivered. Only a fraction of $1.8 billion pledged for Afghan reconstruction this year has materialized. Donor nations have concerns, and hold back. The interim government so far lacks a banking infrastructure to track the funds. There is also worry the corrupt warlords will pocket the money.

In the United States, where there were many pronouncements that we would help rebuild this nation we now consider vital, the anticipated aid levels are laughable. Of $240 million requested most recently by the two main U.S. government agencies that provide foreign assistance for Afghanistan, the White House budget office agreed to ask Congress for $40 million.

President George W. Bush last month pledged a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan, but it is more promise than plan. "A sandwich with nothing in the middle," said Jim Bishop of InterAction, a council of 160 private groups that deliver foreign assistance.

There is, everywhere but in Washington, a growing certainty that without a bigger peacekeeping force to patrol Afghanistan's regions, the nation will again descend into chaos. The Bush administration has so far rejected an expanded force.

But until there is security, there cannot even be effective aid. Without aid, there cannot be the type of projects Heyzer envisions - vocational centers, for instance, for widows who need skills and jobs.

Sima Samar, minister for women in the interim government - and guest of the president at the State of the Union address - told the UN Security Council last month that without an expanded peacekeeping force, she fears "the last real chance" for a more stable nation will be squandered.

This is not what we promised these women when we put their faces on our propaganda poster last fall.

Marie Cocco
Published in the Long Island Newsday (New York) © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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