The woman who defied the Taliban, and paid with her life

Women's rights campaigner in Afghanistan shot dead
One in two Afghan women a victim of violence
Suicide on the rise as Taliban's power increases

Safia Amajan promoted women's education and work - a fairly ordinary job in most places - but in the Afghanistan of a resurgent Taliban it was a dangerous path to follow. She was a target, and yesterday she was gunned down outside her home.

Five years after the "liberation" of Afghanistan by the US and Britain, with promises of a new dawn for its downtrodden women, her murder was a bloody reminder of just how far the country is slipping back into a land of darkness.

Public figures, including the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, lined up to praise Ms Amajan.

Yet this support was signally lacking while she lived. The former teacher worked in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and also the place where women have faced the most virulent discrimination and mistreatment. It is also where Nato forces are fighting a ferocious insurgency. Ms Amajan had asked for, and been refused, a protective vehicle, or bodyguards, despite repeated death threats.

She was in a battered taxi when two gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire with automatic rifles. Her nephew, Farhad Jan, said: "She died on the spot. There was no time to give her treatment." In a place of fear where one can sign one's death warrant with the wrong choice of words, Farhad was careful not to blame anyone for the killing. All he would say was: "We had no personal enmity with anyone."

A Taliban commander, Mullah Hayat Khan, declared that Ms Amajan had been "executed". He said: "We have told people again and again that anyone working for the government, and that includes women, will be killed."

Ms Amajan had taken over the post of women's welfare officer soon after Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, fled with the fall of his regime. With the return of the Taliban, as the "war on terror" moved on to Iraq, aid workers - foreign and Afghan, men and women - were intimidated into leaving the region.

Ms Amajan was one of the few who refused to flee. Her secretary, Abdullah Khan, said: "She was very brave. She was also very hard-working. She was always trying her best to improve education for women."

As well as defying the Taliban, Ms Amajan made the mistake of being successful in what she was doing. In Kandahar alone she had opened six schools where a thousand women had learnt how to make and then sell their goods at the market. She was also instrumental in setting up tailoring schools for women, with some of the products making their way to markets in the West.

At the official end of the Afghan war, America's first lady, Laura Bush, was among those who declared that one of the most important achievements of overthrowing the Taliban was emancipation of women. However, since then female social workers and teachers have been maimed and killed, girls' schools shut down and female workers forced to give up their jobs. The few women out in the streets in Kandahar and other places in the south are covered in burqas. A report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission spoke of the "systematic and violent campaign" directed against women.

Statistics paint a bleak picture of women's lives with 35 female suicides in Kandahar alone and nearly 200 attempted suicides in the Herat region - one third of which were successful. Rights groups estimate that between 60 and 80 per cent of marriages in the country are forced. And the majority of those marriages involve girls under the age of 16.

Ms Amajan's funeral yesterday, in a Shia ceremony, was attended by the provincial governor and hundreds of mourners, including tribal elders. In Kabul, President Karzai said: "The enemies of Afghanistan are trying to kill those people who are working for the peace and prosperity of Afghanistan. The enemies of Afghanistan must understand that we have millions of people like Amajan."

Fariba Ahmedi, a female member of parliament, who attended the burial, said: "Those enemies who have killed her should know it will not derail women from the path we are on. We will continue on our way."

Human rights groups point out, however, that the battle for women's rights is in serious danger of being lost. There are now entire provinces where there is no girls' education; of the 300 schools shut or burnt down, the majority were for girls. The death rate at childbirth is the second highest in the world, and the number of women who have committed suicide, mainly through self-immolation, has risen by 30 per cent in two years.

Life gets worse for Afghan women

Violence

* 50 per cent of Afghan women say they have been beaten, while 200 women in Kandahar ran away from domestic violence this year.

* In the past year, 150 cases of women resorting to self-immolation have been reported in western Afghanistan, 34 cases in the south-east.

* 197 women in Herat were reported to have attempted suicide last year, 69 successfully.

* 57 per cent of girls are married before the legal age of 16.

Education

* 85 per cent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate.

* The number of girls going to school in Afghanistan is half that of boys.

* 300 schools were set on fire across the country this year.

Health

* 70 per cent of tuberculosis deaths are among women.

* Death rate of mothers in labour is 60 in 1000 - (60 per cent higher than developed world).

* Only 5-7 per cent of women in Zabul and Helmand province have access to health care.

Voting

* 41 per cent of the 10.5 million registered voters are women. Women's registration rates in southern provinces were much lower than the national average: Zabul (9 per cent), Uruzgan (10 per cent) Helmand (16 per cent), and Kandahar (27 per cent)

Source: AIHRC, UNICEF, HRW

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