Author: SARAH SMILES PERSINGER
Publication: The Age
THREE years ago, I visited a hospital in southern Afghanistan renovated by Australian Defence Force engineers. A young, goofy digger showed me proudly around the rebuilt facility, pointing to a muddy yard where quarantined cholera patients once perished in tents.
Despite the revamp, however, the hospital lacked basic supplies, even baby formula. Worse still, there were only a handful of female medics a huge obstacle to fighting shocking rates of maternal mortality in the area. In conservative Oruzgan province, where gender segregation is the norm, many Pashtun families refuse help from male doctors, even if their women are dying in childbirth.
Today, there is a successful midwifery training program in the same hospital in Tarin Kowt. Young girls from the region are learning skills that are saving lives.
The hospital's rebirth and its impact on women is one of the few bright spots in Australia's involvement in Afghanistan. As coalition forces leave the country in coming years, these gains must be preserved. Australia should make supporting women particularly in the areas of health and education a priority of its post-2014 role in the country.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the plight of Afghan women and girls has in many ways been emblematic of the conflict. While the Bush administration used the claim of "liberating" Afghan women to justify the war, the Taliban have equated women's progress to the corruption of Islamic values by the West.
Caught in the crossfire, Afghan women and girls have nonetheless fought for a new role in public life in the face of rising violence and threats from insurgents. Today, there are 7.3 million Afghan children in school 37 per cent of them girls compared with zero girls in 2002. Hundreds of midwives have been trained in a bid to tackle maternal mortality. Women also enjoy a 25 per cent quota of reserved seats in the parliament.
As the Karzai government pursues a peace deal with the same tyrannical Taliban leaders that banned female education, the need to build on these small successes has never been more critical.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith has said that Australia will play a role in Afghanistan beyond 2014, when NATO's mandate looks set to expire. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd says Australia will support development there into the next decade.
Australia should follow the lead of Canada, which is considering numerous measures to help women when its combat troops withdraw next year. These include pushing for women to be represented in any peace talks with the Taliban, expanding literacy programs for girls and providing Afghan security forces with gender-sensitised training.
Aid workers will argue that empowering women is critical to good governance, fighting poverty and creating a healthy, stable society. All of these things are desperately needed in Afghanistan.
As troops are withdrawn in the coming years, the danger exists that humanitarian funding will dry up, given that aid has followed the fighting. Matching troop withdrawals with long-term aid commitments is vital. AusAID would do well to sponsor midwife training programs in the rural south, where the maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world.
As the Afghan government reaches out to the Taliban a move that many Afghan women fear will endanger their progress there is also a need to support Afghan women in public life. Australia could provide training and exchanges for Afghan women parliamentarians, lawyers, bureaucrats and police. Canberra could also privately insist that any visiting Afghan delegations include women.
Australia should also consider granting asylum to women who face ongoing death threats because of their perceived association with Western interests. Any future asylum program for Afghans much like that established for Iraqis when Australian troops withdrew from Iraq should consider giving priority to vulnerable women.
While Australian troops have by no means won the battle for "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan, their intervention has brought some small improvements on the ground. These should not be squandered as the war comes to an end. Afghan women and girls must not be forgotten.
Sarah Smiles Persinger is a research associate at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and a former Age journalist. She recently co-authored the report Afghan Women Speak: Enhancing Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan.