Nine years after the fall of the Taliban regime the Afghan women are still facing tremendous difficulties in their daily lives. Nevertheless, there have been important developments, says the new Afghan Ambassador in Finland, Manizha Bakhtari. ”Tradition cannot be changed overnight.”
According to the new Afghan Ambassador in Finland Manizha Bakhtari, the biggest problem for the women of Afghanistan is the country's prevalent insecurity; a threat to all Afghan people, but particularly constraining for women and girls, who cannot move freely or use basic services, such as health care and education.
Another challenge for the Afghan women is learning to read. In absence of official literacy statistics it is estimated that 65 per cent of the population are illiterate, most of them women.
Yet another challenge is posed by tradition and ancient customs that allow abuse of women.
According to Ambassador Bakhtari, social liberation of the Afghan women started in the 1960's and 1970's.
”They abandoned their burkhas and started to educate themselves, even abroad. Thirty years of war and insecurity destroyed the Afghan women's ambition,” Bakhtari says.
Many things have changed since the Taliban regime fell and Afghanistan began the journey towards democracy in 2001. Now millions of girls are attending school.
According to the Ambassador, there are roughly 8 million pupils in Afghanistan, half of them girls. The proportion of women in the Parliament is 28 per cent, and women are also represented in the Cabinet and all official levels.
Of the Afghan media, many are led by a woman.
”We still have many problems to deal with, but it doesn't mean we aren't making progress. Tradition cannot be changed quickly. It takes years and years to change the way people think.”
Now the country has a solid constitution that promotes gender equality and provides for equal rights for men and women in all areas of life, Bakhtari points out. Changes are still needed in legislation and the legal system, but they cannot happen overnight either.
”We are still at war,” Bakhtari reminds us.
Bakhtari says President Hamid Karzai's Cabinet has worked hard for improving the status of women. The new Ministry of Women's Affairs is guiding all government bodies in their equality concerns. Secondly, each ministry has a contact point responsible for equality and gender issues. Thirdly, the Independent Human Rights Commission is working for women's rights throughout the country.
Gender equality is respected in all public institutions and the Cabinet supports women in applying for leadership. Many schools support and help parents who let their daughters attend school.
”Trying to influence on how people are living their daily lives is, of course, more difficult. But it appears we have achieved something, because the majority of families is sending their daughters to school these days. The new generation is better off than their parents,” Bakhtari says.
According to the Ambassador, the widely reported gas attacks against schoolgirls are very rare.
”We appreciate the presence of the international community in Afghanistan. You are setting a good example of how soldiers and other workers can include both women and men. When an Afghan woman sees a female police officer in her village, it will make her think she, too, can become what ever she wants to,” the Ambassador says.
Ambassador Bakhtari is pleased with the contributions of the international community in developing Afghanistan, but there is always more one can do. The equality projects launched by international organisations are useful, as long as the project administration and beneficiaries are also gender balanced.
“We have hundreds of great projects, and the ones promoting women's education and livelihood are perhaps the most important. Without personal income women have neither voice nor independence.”
The Ambassador believes we should focus more on the achievements made in Afghanistan rather than only reporting on problems and threats.
”Why the constant talk about burkhas, when we have thousands of women who don't wear one? I don't wear a burkha. Wearing a burkha is not expected or ordered by the government. It's a tradition and it'll take time to change that. Wearing a burkha is not obligatory in Afghanistan, nothing demands that, not even the Quran,” she points out.
”If you visit Afghanistan, you'll see thousands of young women who are ambitious, who use the internet, who can speak English and who know what's going on in the world.”
Islam and tradition are often confused in people's minds. In fact, wearing a burkha is not even an old tradition, it only goes back about a hundred years.
”Fighting the tradition takes time and sacrifices. We must learn how to live in a global and modern world - step by step. Radical, fast and forced changes can only cause resistance. We must talk to people as friends.”
Text: Laura Rantanen
The new Ambassador for Afghanistan in Finland Manizha Bakhtari visited Finland on 5-7 April. After presenting her credentials she met with Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, Minister of the Interior Anne Holmlund and Minister of Migration and European Affairs Astrid Thors, among others. Bakhtari is stationed in Oslo.
Promotion of women's rights is a key objective for Finland in Afghanistan
Promotion of women's rights, the status of women, and gender equality are important objectives for Finland in Afghanistan. Human rights and promotion of women's status are pervasive themes in all Finnish development cooperation activities in Afghanistan.
Finland is promoting women's rights by supporting the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and financing a micro credit programme that mainly serves women, governed by the Afghanistan Reconstruction Fund.
Finland supports the Marie Stopes International's Reproductive Health Programme in Afghanistan, which has trained over 1.000 health experts and opened health care clinics. The latest project for Finland is Unicef's water and sanitation programme for schools to support especially girls' opportunities for attending school.
In addition, projects carried out in local cooperation and with Finnish soldiers in PRT Mazar-e-Sharif region have concerned women as a specific target group. Non-governmental organisations have had projects in support of UNIFEM and training Afghan women reporters, to name a few.
Finland is consistently highlighting the theme of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in the crisis management operation in Afghanistan. Finland has contributed an equality adviser for the EU police mission (EUPOL) and a human rights and equality expert to the EU Special Representative's office.
Partly thanks to Finnish expertise in these fields, EUPOL has been able to name human rights and women's rights as one of the six strategic priorities of the mission. All Finns appointed to civil and military crisis management tasks receive training on women's rights and the objectives of the UN Resolution 1325.
Finnish aid to Afghanistan is about 20 million euros in total in 2010.