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Afghanistan's women deserve more from U.S.


One of the bleakest, saddest and best movies I've seen lately is Osama, the tale of a girl in Taliban-run Afghanistan who risks her life by pretending to be a boy so she can leave her house and earn money for her widowed mother.

"I wish God hadn't created women," the girl's mother moans and then the girl is arrested, and the movie really gets depressing.

Americans should be proud that we ousted the Taliban.

President George W. Bush declared in his 2002 State of the Union address: "The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes .... Today, women are free."

But they aren't. More than two years later, many Afghan women are still captives in their homes. Life is better in Kabul than under the Taliban, but our triumphalism is proving hollow in many areas.

Consider these snapshots of the new Afghanistan:

A 16-year-old girl fled her 85-year-old husband, who married her when she was 9. She was caught and recently sentenced to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment.

The Afghan Supreme Court has recently banned female singers from appearing on Afghan television, barred married women from attending high school classes and ordered restrictions on the hours when women can travel without a male relative.

When a man was accused of murder recently, his relatives were obliged to settle the blood debt by handing over two girls, ages 8 and 15, to marry men in the victim's family.

A woman in Afghanistan now dies in childbirth every 20 minutes, usually without access to even a nurse.

A U.N. survey in 2002 found that maternal mortality in the Badakshan region was the highest ever recorded anywhere on Earth. A woman there has a 50 per cent chance of dying during one of her eight pregnancies.

In Herat, a major city, women who are found with an unrelated man are detained and subjected to a forced gynecological exam. At last count, according to Human Rights Watch, 10 of these "virginity tests" were being conducted daily.

I strongly backed the war in Afghanistan. Bush oversaw a smart and decisive war, and when I strolled through Kabul in those heady days of liberation, I was never more proud to be an American.

Yet now I feel betrayed, as do the Afghans themselves.

There was such goodwill toward us, and such respect for American military power, that with just a hint of follow-through we could have made Afghanistan a shining success and a lever for progress in Pakistan and Central Asia.

Instead, America lost interest in Afghanistan and moved on to Iraq.

Bush has refused to provide security outside Kabul. So, banditry and chaos are rampant, long-time warlords control much of the country, the Taliban is having a resurgence in the southeast and the U.N. warns that "there is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists."

The rise of banditry and rape, often by the Afghan security authorities, has had a particularly devastating effect on women.

Because the roads are not safe even in daylight, girls do not dare go to schools or their mothers to health centres.

And when women are raped, they risk being murdered by their own families for besmirching the family honour.

"Many women and girls are essentially prisoners in their own homes," Human Rights Watch declared.

And Amnesty International quoted an aid worker as saying: "During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh, she would have been flogged. Now, she's raped."

Change in Afghanistan was never going to come overnight. Honour killings of girls and forced early marriages are deeply ingrained. An Afghan proverb says: "A girl should have her first period in her husband's house and not her father's house."

But we should have started the process of change above all, by providing security. We missed that opportunity, but it's still not too late.

Even now, in the new Afghanistan we oversee, girls are being kidnapped, raped, married against their will to old men, denied education, subjected to virginity tests and imprisoned in their homes. We failed them.


Nicholas D. Kristof is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times.


How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?

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