03/13/2012, 00.00
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Red Cross worker: Only education will save Afghan women

by Simone Cantarini
Susan Fioretti tells AsiaNews about her 10 years among women of Afghanistan. The formation of public and religious leaders only alternative to extremism that is spreading throughout the country. Fear for the withdrawal of international troops in 2014.

Rome (AsiaNews) - "Education and formation are the basis from which to start a real change of the status of women in Afghanistan", Susan Fioretti, an aid worker and an expert of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2002 to 2012 Red Cross Delegate in Afghanistan heading aid programmes for women. Recently returned to Italy, Fioretti talks to AsiaNews about the condition of Afghan women over 10 years since the fall of the Taliban.

The recent opening of the United States and government to radical Islamists, is seriously endangering the little freedom earned by women in Afghanistan. Activists and human rights organizations have accused the Karzai government of using women as a bargaining chip in a future dialogue with the Taliban. On 9 March, the Grand Ulema Council submitted an edict that defines women a second-class citizens subordinate to men. The law, backed by Karzai, re-imposes the burqa, reintroduces polygamy, limits women's access to education, requires the separation of the sexes at work and confirms the rule of accompaniment by a close relative as mandatory. Afghan women activists argue that the law "is part of efforts to expand and strengthen the Taliban's ideology and serves the government to pave the way towards a possible agreement with the Islamic extremists."

Susan Fioretti explains that these statements show that "the political and social conditions of the country is volatile and unstable and threaten to undermine the few fruits of these years of work."

Since 2001, the number of girls who have had access to education have increased from 5 thousand to 2.5 million. The constitution drawn up after the fall of the Taliban enshrines gender equality and reserve 27% of parliamentary seats to women.

"The situation of women in most of the country - she says - is still far from any real improvement and we must distinguish between what happens in cities and provinces."

To date the women of Kabul are the only ones to have had the opportunity to empower themselves. The presence of Westerners has made it easier for Afghan men to accept a different kind of life for their daughters or wives. This was possible due to job training programs funded by the government and the international community, which enabled those who had the good fortune to access them to find a job and to emancipate themselves from their husbands, becoming active members of the family. However, these programs are only accessible for 70 thousand women and are still far from completion". Fioretti explains that many initiatives have been stopped for lack of funds. This is due to uncertainty about the future of the country after the withdrawal of American troops in 2014.

"In Afghan society - she says - the man is the centre of the family, economy, culture. In the villages, but also in many districts of the city, everything is managed by the Council of Elders, which operate according to sharia, the Koranic law. " In 2004 the Red Cross opened a center in the outskirts of Kabul for work formation devoted to Pashtun and Tajik women. "For more than two years - continues the operator - the imams and other religious authorities hampered our business in every way because they considered it a home for prostitutes. Their approval came only after a long standoff, but especially when they realized that by working women began to be more independent, becoming a new source of income for the family. "

Fioretti, however, emphasizes that education must start from those elements of Islamic society that most impede any change of the status of women. One of these categories are the imams and mullahs. Recently, the UN and the Ministry for the hajj, which organizes the pilgrimage to Mecca, launched an initiative to train young Muslim religious leaders, based on the study of parts of the Koran that describes the virtues of a woman's role in Muslim society. The program also includes a stay in a moderate Islamic country, under the supervision of a female official. Early results showed that on returning to their villages, many young imams have been open to enrolling girls in school.

"In the poorest villages - she says - women still do not have any kind of legal standing. During my stay I've often see cases of women sent to prison for speaking out against abuse, or serve a prison sentence instead of their husbands ".

Such practices are almost impossible to eradicate in the short term and without a real commitment from political leaders. In these 10 years the government has exploited the issue of women as a mere slogan. "Recently - says Fioretti - the government opposed the opening of the centres created by the Red Cross to assist women raped by their husbands. There are only 10 such structures across the country. Instead of supporting us, state officials are sometimes ordered to shut them because they are considered a danger to society, proposing to accept only women who are accompanied their husbands, who in 90% of cases are the very perpetrators of violence. "

Fioretti says if you provide the right tools and treat people with love and respect the fruits can even be born in a torn country like Afghanistan: "What we have attempted in recent years has been to give people the basics to find their own solutions for themselves. " The future withdrawal of foreign troops, the return of Islamic extremism and increasing violence threaten to undermine the work of ten years as the rights of women and human rights are becoming main currency of exchange between Taliban and government.


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