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Hiding no more

"Hiding no more" Continued...

Issue: "Curt Schilling: Never hide," March 19, 2005

The delegation also complained about women's nonprofit groups receiving little U.S. funding. None of the groups they represented had received any, and they said of the 17 percent in aid homegrown Afghan groups had received, little more than 4 percent went to women's organizations. Part of the problem is that local groups lack the resources to implement large programs or account for their work. With more help, however, women's civil society groups are well-placed to make a cultural impact.

Even with turning back the Taliban clock, conditions remain painfully backward. Women in Kabul may move around relatively freely, but many in rural areas must still don a burqa or have family members accompany them outdoors. Domestic violence and forced marriages are rampant. "Women who are runaways are charged with kidnapping," said Mary Akrami, who runs a Kabul shelter for women. "Nearly every woman in jail is there for this crime."

Another horror is the widespread system of protecting family honor, which often results in women forced into marriages or exchanged after a loss. "If there's a fight between two men and one dies, the victim's family is entitled to retribution-usually a woman," said Nelofar Qadiri, of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation in Afghanistan. One such recent case involved a 6-year-old girl given as compensation. "We cannot trace her," she said.

The United States may measure progress in schools and clinics built, textbooks handed out and percentages of women voting, but Afghan women see changing long-standing cultural attitudes as even more important. "Afghanistan is a lot different from other countries," said Ms. Akrami, one of the delegates visiting Washington. "On one side we had two wars. On the other side, traditionally, we have problems. It's not easy to do things in two, three, or five years all over Afghanistan. It takes time, and [the world] should not forget Afghanistan again."

One example is a women's cooperative Ms. Akrami's organization, the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, began in Parvan Province, north of Kabul. The cooperative provides local women with micro-credit to earn income for their families, through such ventures as keeping cows or carpet weaving. Persuading the local men to allow the project took more than a year. And when the cooperative's center first opened, they wanted strict segregation, not allowing men to go inside. Now the men appreciate the work their women are doing, Ms. Akrami said, and about 80 women run the cooperative by themselves.

With all the problems, these are still hopeful days. Ms. Sirran remembers what life was like under the Taliban. She secretly conducted literacy courses for women in her home, scribbling with chalk on a wall so she could easily rub off writing if the Taliban turned up. Her students came to her house in threes and fours, at different times of the day, and brought sewing kits or knitting needles to make it look like they were honing their domestic skills.

During those years, on International Women's Day in March, she and other women would huddle around a radio listening to their counterparts celebrating around the world. "We used to cry when we heard other women say, 'We are with the women of Afghanistan,'" Ms. Sirran said. Afghan women have come far since then, but they have much farther go.

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