Don't abandon the women of Afghanistan, aid agencies warn Hague


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The Independent Online

William Hague and his Nato colleagues are being warned that their efforts to extricate Western troops from Afghanistan threaten to "sell out" the women whose treatment was cited as one of the main evils of the Taliban.

A group of leading aid agencies is using the tenth anniversary of the conflict to demand that Mr Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and his counterparts in the Western alliance demonstrate their commitment to the country's women, who they say are being sacrificed at the negotiations with insurgents despite the fact that their fate was one of the original justifications for military action.

The charities' unusual co-operative endeavour comes as UN figures show that a law aimed at preventing violence against women is being enforced in just 10 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. But it is the recent negotiations with the Taliban – abruptly halted by the assassination of the government peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani – that have particularly heightened their fears.

Belinda Calaguas of ActionAid said: "In 2001 our leaders went into war in Afghanistan saying that improving women's rights was a goal of intervention. Ten years on women are being frozen out of the process and are worried their rights are being traded away for peace."

Her words were echoed by Amnesty's Kate Allen, who said it was "vital that we don't see dirty deals done that sell out women's rights".

Under the umbrella of Gender Action for Peace and Security, they are among a dozen charities involved in the No Women, No Peace campaign. Mr Hague yesterday responded to their concerns by admitting that women in Afghanistan "face an uphill struggle to have their rights upheld". But, he insisted, the British Government is "working hard" to rectify the situation.

The reputation of Western powers remains as fragile as ever in Afghanistan. Hundreds marched through Kabul yesterday demanding the withdrawal of international military forces, chanting "no to occupation" and "Americans out".

But there is also evidence that women in Afghanistan are concerned about what will happen when Nato does go. A recent poll found nine out of 10 women in the country feared the withdrawal in 2014 would leave them in danger. Fowzia Koofi, an Afghan MP, said Britain must ensure "women's rights are not sacrificed for peace". British leaders, she added, "must not abandon the women of Afghanistan at this crucial time".

In rural provinces, girls are still married off as young as 12 or regularly sold to pay off debts while "honour killings" persist. Some 87 per cent of women, the UN says, have been subjected to domestic abuse. Cases registered with the Human Rights Commission rose by 50 per cent this year. A third of women cite sexual assault as their biggest fear.

"The best way of achieving a lasting peace is by making sure that Afghan women are meaningfully involved at all levels of negotiation," said Shaheen Chugtai, a policy adviser at Oxfam. Her colleague Orzala Ashraf Nemat added: "Afghan women want peace – not a stitch-up deal that will confine us to our homes again."

UN appeal over drought crisis

The UN is appealing for $142m (£92m) to help feed several million people this winter as Afghanistan confronts its worst drought for a decade.

Nearly three million people across the country face severe food shortages after the failure of wheat crops in 14 of the country's 34 provinces, according to the international charity Oxfam.

It called for immediate action by donor countries, since many of the worst affected areas would be cut off during the winter. The failure of the harvest had led to a sharp spike in food prices that had made basic food items unaffordable, Oxfam said. Many farmers had sold their livestock and would need aid to survive in the coming months. Asuntha Charles, the head of Oxfam in Afghanistan, said there had been reports of people trekking for nine hours to get clean water.

The Agriculture Minister, Mohammed Asif Rahimi, told the BBC that help would be needed for six months. "Lower harvests due to drought, and rising food prices worldwide, have created an emergency for Afghans in the north," he said.

The International Monetary Fund provisionally agreed yesterday to lend the country $129m. It said GDP should grow by up to 8 per cent despite problems with the drought and security.