November 28, 2009
The Canberra Times & The National Times

Land of withering hopes

She’s pint sized, but she goes like a rocket and talks like a threshing machine. And for the past month Malalai Joya – dubbed by western media as “the bravest woman in Afghanistan’ – has been raising her voice across North America to send a strong and unambiguous message to Barack Obama, ahead of his decision next week on Afghanistan.

Her message is simple – pull out now. Malalai Joya shot to international fame when she won a seat in Afghanistan’s new Parliament, at just 27 years old. By 2007 her ranting against government corruption, misogyny and the presence of criminal warlords in parliament, eventually got her thrown out of office.

The US President has been accused of ‘dithering’ as he’s taken several months to consider whether to commit the extra 40,000 troops General McCrystal has requested to fight the Taliban. He’s under considerable domestic pressure to cease the inordinate spending – 100 million US dollars a day on the military alone – and is grappling to convince a disbelieving public that the war in Afghanistan is winnable, or worthwhile.If he wants an easy out, Malalai Joys is certainly handing him one.

She insists the “occupation” of her homeland by US, NATO and allied forces – including Australia – is doing nothing to help the most vulnerable and innocent victims of war – the women and children. In fact, she argues the reverse: that foreign troop occupation has destroyed many more civilian lives than it has helped. She blames the US and NATO for providing succour to criminal warlords, by propping them up with government positions and fattening their coffers with foreign money and resources.

She also blames the US for the massive increase in poppy production since 2001, which now has Afghanistan supplying 93 percent of the world’s opium.

Joya argues that “democracy cannot come from war” and that Afghanistan can never be “liberated” by foreign forces. She insists that only Afghans can find a way towards a peaceful and secure future. While she is stridently anti-American, and its imperialist allies, Joya nevertheless reserve her strongest bile for Afghanistan’s warlords and fundamentalists who treat women like “caged” animals.

To hear Joya rail is compelling. I’ve sat before her and was struck by her youthful passion and fearless dedication to her country. Those darting dark eyes have a way of pinning you down, and making you listen.

But at this stage of the war there is a hole in her argument, and it starts with some simple numbers.Yes, atrocious acts of war have killed innocent civilians. The cluster bombings in Farah province in May massacred at least 150, mostly women and children. It was a shocking act – for which the US later apologised. But women are dying across Afghanistan in much bigger numbers from basic neglect. They’re dying because there is no government system that provides basic care and protection to help them when they’re sick, when they’re beaten, abused, or even when they’re hungry.

The Karzai Government is criminally negligent in its failure to support its people. The UN’s 2009 Human Development Index ranks Afghanistan at 181 out of 182 countries: almost the worst place in the world in which to live. By the time you’ve finished reading today’s newspaper, another woman will have died from reproductive complications, due to a lack of health care. One dies every 30 minutes; that’s 17,376 women a year. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 80 percent of those deaths are preventable. This is a human rights scandal, and yet the Karzai Government has not built a single hospital for women.

More than 70 percent of women submit to forced marriages, and according to UNIFEM more than half the female population marry before the legal age of 16. Female depression is widespread and the rate of self immolation has skyrocketed. Domestic violence is endemic, with one UK report suggesting it affects 80 percent of households. Yet the Karzai Government has not built a single shelter or welfare centre for women.

However, some gutsy Afghan women activists have stepped in where the limp and useless government won’t.

Since 2003 six women’s shelters have been quietly established by local women, with the financial backing of international NGOs and donors. One of the board members of the Afghan Women’s Network, Orzala Ashraf, was clear about this when she told me “the opportunities to support women have increased tremendously with the resources available now through NGO supports”.

During the Taliban regime Ashraf ran underground schools. Now she heads a large network of health and education programs for women and children: “Before we didn’t have any grants or funds to do this work,” she said.Loosely networked, there is a plethora of small internationally supported women’s advocacy groups doing vital work across Afghanistan.

Should foreign troops withdraw, even Malalai Joya has conceded there will be civil war, before a new regime is established. With such instability and lack of security, it’s most doubtful international NGOs and donors will stay the course.

As the world pulls away from Afghanistan, the support funds will dry up. Then, as history has proven, the women of Afghanistan will be forgotten – again.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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