International Women's Day Highlights Plight of Afghan Women

This year, International Women’s Day is occurring at a time when many countries, including the United States, are debating their future role in Afghanistan and either have or will decide the direction and focus of that role for some years to come.

If a central issue is still to help the Afghan people, however, especially to uplift women and children in terms of human security and socio-economic opportunities, none of this is possible without a relatively secure and peaceful environment, backed by sustainable growth and provided by the efforts of American and other allies in the troubled areas of this war-torn nation.

We must remember that it has only been six years since the Taliban regime was driven from power in Kabul. Since that time many positive developments have occurred, especially in relation to improving Afghan women’s rights and participation in society.

Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work, attend school or pursue an education, receive medical care from male doctors and travel without a male relative, and they were regarded as non-citizens without rights or representation.

Over the last six years, millions of women and girls have had the chance to attend school, return to work, open businesses, gain access to health care and, generally, attempt to catch up with the time and opportunities that were stolen from them during those oppressive years.

Afghan women have a presence in government and strong voices in the parliament and in the media, and they have no intention to give up these progressive strides.

Already touting 23,000 members, the first political party for women recently was formed to develop a stronger platform for women’s rights throughout the country and in political arenas. Their organization and Afghan women in general, however, cannot accomplish their goals of developing a gender-balanced civil society with more access to education, training and rule-of-law protection without the sustained help of the international community.

Nearly 6 million children have returned to school since 2002 with at least 1.5 million Afghan girls in attendance. Boys still attend in greater numbers due to security concerns and other restrictions.

The increasing insurgency of Taliban and terrorist forces in the South and East has only deepened this divide and last year nearly 150 schools burned to the ground, 305 schools closed and 105 students and teachers were killed, all accompanied by warnings to locals not to send their daughters to school.

With the situation still so tenuous and under threat by those who prefer darkness created by illiteracy and separation from society to the freedom and opportunity gained through education and economic livelihoods, Afghan women need the continued presence of the international community to ensure that their human rights will be protected and upheld.

The Afghan people, and especially Afghan women, continue to be hopeful and grateful for all that the U.S. and the international community are doing to uphold the noble cause of helping a struggling nation onto a path of progress and peace so desperately needed after three decades of war and destruction. The stakes for Afghan society are, indeed, high, but clearly worth it.

Afghan women face rise in violence

Afghanistan's independent human rights commission says violence against women has increased over the past year.

The commission says it has recorded 265 cases of forced marriage and 165 cases of self-immolation, where women deliberately set fire to themselves.

In both cases the numbers are higher than those recorded previously.

The new Afghan constitution drawn up after the fall of the Taleban in 2001 is supposed to protect women but millions still face discrimination.

The rights commission says that even as many people in the country are faced with a worsening security situation, women are having to deal with increased cases of domestic violence.

It says that many continue to be forced into marriages against their will.

Last year it recorded 265 such cases, an increase from the previous year.

The commission says that more than half of the women in question are married under the legal age of 18-years-old.

Experts say poverty often drives families to marry off their daughters to older, wealthier men.

In some instances, women are handed over to resolve a community dispute.

To escape this situation many women commit suicide by burning themselves.

The commissioners recorded 165 cases of self-immolation in 2007.

Although these are nationwide figures, it says the actual numbers could be higher.

A new law against domestic violence and forced marriage has been drafted and is to be debated in parliament.

But previous steps such as laws to fight discrimination and under-age marriage have done little to stop the trend, especially in the villages.

Can women find unique ways out of war?

Women leaders from 45 nations meet in India this week to discuss their role in conflict resolution

New Delhi - Sakena Yacoobi well knows the hardships of Afghan women, caught between a war and the hopelessness of poverty and illiteracy.

Yet on International Women's Day Saturday, the Afghan educator will not ask the world to help Afghan women. Instead, she will ask Afghan women to help the world.

In a time of growing conflict around the world, she believes the wisdom and compassion of women can offer a way out. "Women bring tolerance and patience," she says. "Women can bring solutions – we cannot accomplish that with weapons."

She is one of several hundred prominent female leaders from 45 countries who have come to India this week to seek ways to raise women's voices worldwide, hoping that their ideas – so often ignored – begin to move the world away from war.

It is a unique approach to International Women's Day – and intentionally so, says Dena Merriam, who has organized "Making Way for the Feminine," a five-day conference that began Thursday in Jaipur.

"This is not about empowering women," says Ms. Merriam, who also co-chaired the United Nations' Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000. "It is about how women can transform society to help us find new ways of addressing conflict."

There are men here, too. The goal, participants say, is not to antagonize men. Yet each believes that women bring to the issue of conflict resolution a different perspective. Many liken it to that of a mother, stern but caring, and more open to finding alternatives to violence.

That perspective is sorely needed, they say, as the path of power and aggression has led only to more fighting and division. "The feminine gifts of compassion, empathy, and caring prepare women for the urgent role as leaders and reconcilers," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, chairwoman of the Global Peace Initiative for Women, at the opening press conference.

"This is about whether women, with men as their partners, can chart a new course," continues Ms. Campbell, who has worked with leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bill Clinton.

The outlines of that new course can be seen in the lives of those attending, both men and women.

It is evident in the compassion of Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian who has been imprisoned for his family's political activities and whose brother was killed in the second intifada, yet started a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians who have lost relatives in the conflict.

"The idea is to show people that if you are in the peaceful way, you are not alone," he says. "You do not need to be afraid."

It is evident in the activities of Ms. Yacoobi, who operated secret schools for girls in Afghanistan during Taliban rule, and has since expanded her activities to eight provinces. While other schools have been burned or destroyed, hers have not, she says, because she is a part of the community and knows their needs.

"When the people trust you, they will protect you," she says.

In this is one of the lessons she is bringing to Jaipur. "You have to listen to the communities – to listen to their needs. You can't just depend on weapons," she says, suggesting that connection to the community tends to be a stronger trait among women than men. "We need people to listen to us, not to order us."

These are the voices that this conference hopes to amplify and inspire. Organizer Merriam acknowledges that the conference has an enormous task. The intent is to begin to change how the world thinks about power – spreading the notion that nonviolent solutions are practical and not the fruit of weakness.

Her tools, she says, are the participants themselves. With few women voices in the corridors of power, the hope is to kindle greater awareness and confidence among women so they become more active participants in demanding a solution.

"We can start by critiquing the policies that are creating the pain," said Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, at the press conference. "I might not have all the answers, but I cannot sit by in silence while the policies are destroying the very people I care about."

In recognition of the fact that many of the world's conflicts come from a clash of faiths, the conference has an overtly religious theme. It is bringing together female spiritual leaders from all faiths – such as an Islamic scholar, Buddhist nun, Hindu guru, and members of the Christian clergy.

To this end, Merriam hopes the conference will bring a World Council of Women Spiritual Leaders, which would be a mechanism to guide and advance more inclusive solutions to global problems.

Yet many of the attendees say the gathering in itself, regardless of its outcome, enables them to carry out their work.

Yacoobi needs such spiritual refreshment, she says frankly. "Coming here allows me to collect myself from all the things going on in Afghanistan," she says. "This war is destroying our country, our religion, and our faith, but coming here and seeing these people gives me a lot of energy to believe."

A psychologist in the West Bank, Laila Atshan, too, sees the worst of war – wives who have lost husbands and sons in the conflict with Israel. "I will go back stronger to give them strength," she says. For years, she has considered opening an interfaith community center. "I am hoping this will give me the guts to go do it."

So is Merriam: "The goal is to provide space for people to have a transformational moment – to have people come away so moved that they bring it back to their communities."

$100 Million for 10,000 Women

Goldman Sachs will fund management education for women in developing nations, to help them start and expand their own businesses

Thousands of women entrepreneurs in developing countries have started their own businesses in the past few years, many with help from local microfinance banks and nonprofits that issued them small loans and financial support. The concept has taken off, but there has been one key flaw in the model: Most of the women have little, if any, formal education and lack the management skills and financial savvy to take their business to the next level. On Mar. 5, investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS) announced it would change the equation by pumping $100 million into educational projects for these women over the next five years.

In an announcement at Columbia University in New York City, Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein said the company is hoping to create a new model of management education designed to help these women learn everything from how to write a business plan to market their own business. The company will be teaming up with a coalition of top business schools, including Wharton, Columbia, Harvard, and Cambridge University's Judge Business School, to develop management education certificate programs at universities in countries such as Nigeria, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. The programs will be flexible and of short duration, ranging from several weeks to several months.

"Not Rocket Science"

Dubbed "10,000 Women," for the number of women it intends to reach by 2013, the program is designed to build on existing programs and create new ones by supporting partnerships between U.S. business schools and universities and schools in developing countries. The program is aimed at women, organizers say, because closing gender gaps in education and employment yields greater returns in economic growth in developing countries. For instance, Goldman estimates that improving female education in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and another 11 developing countries can boost per-capita income by as much as 14% over baseline estimates by 2020.

Kathy Matsui, Goldman's chief Japan equity strategist, says that educating women can boost gross domestic product in the target countries by 1% to 2% a year. "That is rationale enough for us to reach out and participate in initiatives like this. It seems like it's not rocket science."

Among the planned projects: Penn's Wharton School will work with American University in Cairo to create a five-week certificate program that will focus on professional leadership, management, and entrepreneurial skills. Columbia Business School will work with the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to create two new certificate programs in entrepreneurship and management. In addition to the partnerships, the schools will collaborate to train professors, develop curricula, exchange faculty, and develop material for case studies. Thunderbird School of Global Management is teaming up with the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul to develop a certificate program and a training program for professors.

"This could be the start of something transformational around the world," says Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, which will work with the University of Cape Town Business School in South Africa to create a new business training certificate program.

Better Access to Funding and Information

Women in developing countries face three main problems when launching their own businesses: access to finance, business education, and access to a network of mentors, says Maha ElShinnawy, a management professor at the American University in Cairo. For example, women own about 18% of the businesses in Egypt, most of which are supported by microfinance loans and have limited growth potential, she says.

ElShinnaway will help to recruit students such as Eman Yousry, 27, a visual artist who started her own furniture and home design store last year out of her home in Cairo. Yousry sells small coasters, pictures frames, and other home goods and oversees two employees, but she says she has had trouble getting her business off the ground because of her lack of business education. Yousry, who will attend the management program at the American University in Cairo this summer, hopes to learn how to market her business and expand it, perhaps eventually exporting her items to other countries.

"It is very hard because I have many problems, and I don't know how to market myself, manage my employees, and manage my money," Yousry says. "These are the main problems I have. I'm hoping this program will help me learn to run my business the right way and help me solve my problems."

The Mentors of Tomorrow

In addition to business training, the 10,000 Women program organizers hope to create a network of female entrepreneurs and advisers who can serve as role models for aspiring business owners. ElShinnaway says she hopes Yousry will eventually be able to serve as a mentor to women in the program and as an example for case studies the schools will develop on how female entrepreneurs in developing countries overcome societal challenges to become successful business leaders.

Such case studies, they hope, will provide examples that will inspire as well as instruct, ElShinnaway says. "That will be a powerful story that will tell others that like Eman [Yousry], 'I can take my business to the next level.'"