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Fulfilling Promises

May 2003

We are all aware that the United States government's assertion of force in Iraq will have ramifications of major worldwide scope for years, perhaps decades, to come. This military action is frequently compared to the Gulf War of 1991. It is almost too easy to forget the major commitment of troops in Afghanistan, which began barely a year and a half ago and still continues. Perhaps there is much that the United States and the world can learn from the aftermath of our effort to remove the Taliban from power, as the coalition assembled by the US seeks to unseat another government we believe is tyrannical.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, US military involvement has come with a pledge to help the nation rebuild its economy and its institutions, and to promote the rights that the people of that country could not exercise under their despotic rulers. The US has not had the chance to make good on that pledge in Iraq, but it has been over a year since the Taliban were dislodged from power.

In that vein, I want to share with you the substance of a letter recently drafted by our International Human Rights Committee. The letter, to President Bush, focused on the treatment that women and girls are now experiencing in Afghanistan. As you know from my earlier column on trafficking in women, the Association has been particularly concerned with the treatment of women around the world, and the efforts of our government to assist women who are treated poorly, often brutally, in so many places. Thus we implored the President, who has spoken about the importance of freedom for Afghan women and girls, to take action to reverse the troubling backslide in their treatment. Recent reports from the UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch, and the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research all point to the dire threat to the security of Afghan women and girls.

There is no doubt that the situation for most women and girls in Afghanistan has improved since the fall of the Taliban. However, there are disturbing signs that Taliban-era restrictions are again being promulgated and enforced in several parts of the country - most prominently in districts near Kabul and Kandahar, and in the western province of Herat. In addition, reports indicate that a gravely insufficient number of human rights monitors have been deployed in the countryside, and that women rarely have access to urgently needed services and assistance.

There are credible reports that in Herat, the local governor, Ismail Khan, has censored women's groups, intimidated outspoken women leaders, and sidelined women from his administration. Further, restrictions have been placed on their right to work, so that many women are not able to use their hard-won education. Perhaps most distressing are the physical restrictions on women and girls. Government-enforced limitations on their freedom of movement - including a prohibition on driving and on their being in the presence of unrelated men - mean that women and girls are confined arbitrarily. There are reports of abuses by police in Herat, who have detained women and girls accused of being accompanied by unrelated men and forced them to undergo medical examinations to determine if they have recently engaged in sexual intercourse. While the violations reported from Herat are deplorable, the worsening situation for women and girls is not limited to that province. Credible reports from across the country indicate that women and girls are facing increasingly harsh restrictions by local leaders. Many women, especially those outside of Kabul, fear abuse by police, troops, and government officials should they attend school or university. Women interviewed by journalists and international workers are not only fearful but also deeply disillusioned; instead of the anticipated improvements in their lives, they are experiencing deteriorating rights.

The United States has a responsibility to address this problem. The President promised to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, just as he had to Afghanistan. He will be judged on how he fulfills his promises. US funding for the Afghanistan Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Independent Human Rights Commission were a positive sign. Now, the Bush Administration must work closely with both the United Nations, which continues to have an important Afghan presence, and the government of Afghanistan to address the abuses to the female population, and reverse this troubling trend. The President must know that the world will most definitely be watching to see if he makes good on his word.

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