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The future of women in Afghanistan

20 February 2013   |   Speeches and Conferences   |   By James Brown

Military Fellow James Brown participated in a panel discussion hosted by Amnesty International to discuss how Australia can help Afghan women fighting for their rights. He spoke alongside Wazhma Frogh, receipient of the 2009 International Women of Courage Award, and SBS journalist Karen Middleton.

James Brown

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    Thank you for letting me be the clear underachiever on this distinguished panel. I joined the military because I thought marching in a straight line was a realistic career aspiration for me.

    I'm going to talk a little about what Australians have achieved for women in Uruzgan thus far, and what might happen there after the transition to Afghan forces later this year.

    This is an important conversation to be having, and an important conversation to be having right now.

    Australians seem to have lost interest in talking about Afghanistan.

    For the government it seems like yesterday's problem.

    The Lowy Institute's public opinion polling shows just how deeply unpopular the war in Afghanistan has become.

    In 2007 Australians were evenly split on whether we should be fighting in Afghanistan or not, about 46% on either side of the argument.

    Last year 65% were opposed to an ongoing military commitment. For many Australians, Afghanistan is a lost cause. There is deafening silence instead of discussion about the future of Afghanistan.

    But the one issue that cuts through our apathy on Afghanistan is the treatment of women.

    The faces of conflict in Afghanistan recognised the most in western democracies are not warlords or chieftans, but the women who have been terribly and tragically abused.

    Steve McCurry's hauntingly beautiful photo of the Afghan girl for National Geographic in 1984.

    Malalai Kakar, the Kandahar policewoman shot in 2008.

    Malala Yousafzai, the 14 year old Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban last year, and

    Aisha Mohammadzi who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 2010, her noses and ears cut away by her family.

    We know how much progress has been made for women since 2001.

    4 million girls in schools.

    A higher proportion of women in the Afghan parliament, than in the Australian parliament.

    A six-fold increase in the number of midwives across the country.

    But we also know how fragile those gains are.

    Despite the billions of dollars of development funding to lift Afghans to at least what Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghania calls a genteel form of poverty

    Women are still 70 times more likely to die from childbirth than from war and very few Afghan women make it to university. Right now in Uruzgan, where Australians fight, there's not a single woman enrolled in years 10-12.

    Let's reflect on what has been achieved in Uruzgan, one of the most conservative provinces in Afghanistan.

    For the past 7 years, the Australian Defence Force has engaged directly with women in Uruzgan. This has evolved slowly.

    Firstly through chance encounters as soldiers patrolled through valleys, then more deliberate programs where soldiers would distribute aid and medical assistance to locals during what are called MEDCAPs and VETCAPs. Finally, by more dedicated methods like womens shuras and female engagement teams.

    Though it hasn't been the military's main role, regular engagement with Afghan women has allowed the ability to monitor their treatment. And Australia soldiers have been able to shape attitudes in Southern Afghanistan by talking to women.

    I was surprised to find that there are extraordinary communications networks amongst women in places like Uruzgan. Women run home schools, they run small shops in their homes, they travel to sell goods to other women.

    ISAF has relied on these networks to provide information and try and change attitudes. Radio broadcast initiatives like the Provincial Radio Network have been incredibly successful in getting information to women in Southern Afghanistan. Sometimes starting a conversation about maternal health and hygiene can be all the catalyst that is needed.

    As well, seeing women in leadership roles within the Australian military has also had an impact on local attitudes amongst women and towards women.

    AUSAID has done excellent work improving maternal health in Uruzgan. 80% of women in the province now receive at least one antenatal visit.

    There are 130 female community health workers and more midwives in training, a key metric when 1 in 11 women in Uruzgan still die from pregnancy related issues.

    Outside of Uruzgan, 30 women have graduated from an Australian-led project for master teacher trainers in Malaysia and have gone back to educate the next generation of Afghan teachers. Australia is now providing 5000 scholarships for female teachers to attend teaching colleges in Afghanistan.

    A report by The Liaison Office last year found that mobility for women had increased in Uruzgan. More women now feel comfortable shopping in bazaars and the capital Tarin Kowt for the first time has shops dedicated to women.

    But the report noted that though the local police chief and powerbroker Matiullah Khan actively supports female politicians and widows, he does not send his own daughters to be educated.

    When the ADF leaves at the end of this year, three things will immediately happen:

    Firstly regular engagement between the military and Afghan women will cease. It will be an uncertain period as many valleys go dark because our information links dry up. In a lot of places we simply won't know how women are faring.

    Secondly, Australian development programs will end. Once the military leaves AUSAID will be unable to guarantee security for Australian aid workers and the focus of our $200m overseas development assistance package will shift to nationally run programs based in Kabul.

    Finally, the Afghan National Security Force are unlikely to fill many of the gaps left by the departure of Australian military forces. The ANSF will particularly struggle to engage with women, given that only 1370 Afghan Police and 350 Afghan National Army soldiers are women. That's less than 1% of the planned 230 000 strong ANSF.

    Aisha Mohammadzi, the woman who graced the cover of Time magazine in 2010 without her ears and nose, lived in the Chora valley in Uruzgan, not far from where Australia has maintained a forward operating base for several years. An Australian soldier was shot and killed by an Afghan soldier there in 2011.

    Two months ago the Australian Defence Force closed that base. What happens in Chora now is largely unknown to us. But we do know that Australian forces were responsible for allowing a road to be completed through the Chora Valley, which now lets locals travel safely to market in single cars rather than convoys.

    What gives me some degree of hope for the future of Afghanistan is the flourishing of local journalism. I follow four Afghan journalists on Instagram, and most mornings I can see their photos as they travel around the country finding stories. Stories of women, stories of men, stories of corruption, stories of hope. Those Afghan journalists will become even more important when ISAF leaves. The Australian government should be doing everything it can to support journalism in Afghanistan. We should be doing everything we can to support journalism in Afghanistan.

    Before military forces arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, the only way outside governments could influence women's rights in Afghanistan was through diplomacy. As we near transition I'm sure the Australian government will be doing everything it can to make sure our Kabul based  thane the resources they need - particularly to try and influence Afghan officials not to trade womens rights away in their politicking.