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UNICEF warns against Afghan female exclusion

Tuesday, 1 April 1997: Schools have just opened throughout Afghanistan after the winter recess -- but there are no girls in sight. Since their military victories in the summer of 1995, the Taliban, known for their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, have barred girls and women teachers from the classroom and ruled that women may not work.

"The exclusion of girls and women from the public sphere has disastrous consequences for the entire nation, as well as being an affront to basic human rights," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "Not only are they shut out of educational opportunities, but they are denied the right to contribute to their families' welfare and the country's economy."

The Taliban have used the implausible argument that there are not sufficient funds to provide for girls' education. But according to Ms. Bellamy, the real economic issue is that the exclusion of girls from schools and women from the workforce is seriously undermining the economic and social development prospects of Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is a nation of widows," she said. "Women are not only vital members of the workforce but are frequently the only bread-winners of the family. If they cannot earn a living, they will not be able to feed their children. The consequences will be catastrophic."

There are an estimated 30,000 widows in Kabul alone. A small proportion of them work in the health sector, the only employment permitted by the Taliban. The remainder have lost the right to work and many have been forced on to the streets to beg.

Other Taliban rulings also place considerable additional financial burdens on women. For example, the `burqa,' -- the head-to-toe covering with an embroidered grill over the face that all women are required to wear in public -- costs the equivalent of $10 or two months' salary. Forced by the cost to share the garments, women are even further restricted to their homes.

In recent weeks, humanitarian organizations have expressed cautious optimism at an apparent softening of the Taliban position on girls' education. Last month, at a meeting in Kabul between the Minister of Education and United Nations' representatives, an agreement was reached to allow girls up to nine years old to attend school. Days later, however, the Minister reversed his position, leaving girls and women teachers excluded from schools.

Kabul University also re-opened at the end of March without women teachers or female students. When the university was closed in September after the Taliban takeover of the city, women made up 4,000 of the university's 10,000-strong student body.

In November 1995, UNICEF suspended its assistance to education programmes in those parts of Afghanistan where girls were excluded from schools. In the meantime, UNICEF has continued to negotiate with local authorities on resuming educational opportunities for girls.

"UNICEF is committed to the principle of non-discrimination and considers education one of the most fundamental rights of every human being, boy or girl," said Ms. Bellamy. The right of every child to education is laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 190 nations, including Afghanistan.

The Taliban maintain that there is no all-out policy barring girls from schools. They promise that, once the military situation has stabilized and they have been recognized as a legitimate power base, a segregated educational structure with a limited curriculum will be put in place for girls. Clearly this is still not acceptable, and would constitute a further violation of the Convention.

Recent reports confirm that there has been no softening of the Taliban position on women. Taxi drivers are punished for carrying women who are incorrectly dressed and Kabul residents have been ordered to screen windows in their homes to ensure that women cannot be seen from the street.

"Together with many Islamic scholars, and UN agencies, and countries that have some influence with the Taliban, we must keep the pressure up until each and every girl and woman has her basic human rights restored," said Ms. Bellamy.

Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1997/08.

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