Afghanistan's slow progress

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

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.

recently in Kabul

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 They saw the pathetic state of the buildings, the inadequate infrastructure, outdated medical equipment and inadequate medicines, and above all, doctors from foreign countries, including Indian doctors, working against all the odds to save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 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 compensated."

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 special classes.

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.

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 ethos.

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 is there.

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 market."

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