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Afghan women looking for a voice

Afghan hospital
Afghan women can again dispense medical care  

By CNN's Avril Stephens

BONN, Germany (CNN) -- They make up half of Afghanistan's population but they have been the silent, shadowy members of its society.

Women, restricted in their individuality and femininity during the past five years of Taliban rule, are now looking to restore their voice.

Since the fall of Kabul and other large Afghan towns during the past month, some women have begun removing the all-enveloping burka which covers its wearer from head to toe.

Women doctors and medical staff are beginning to return to their hospitals and teenage girls are attending schools again.

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Women, who under strict restrictions could not easily be treated by male doctors, can now have access to health care. It comes after years of suffering some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.

Nail varnish and lipstick have resurfaced from the back of women's drawers, and are being worn by women who no longer need a man to accompany their trips beyond their front door.

But they do not want to be forgotten on the political front, and are pushing for a say in the shaping of a proposed broad-based government.

Women have played an important role in Afghan society and politics in the past, having had the vote and having occupied 15 percent of all legislative posts in 1977, the United Nations point out.

Women also held 70 percent of teachers' jobs up to the early 1990s as well as 50 percent of government jobs and 40 percent of medical posts.

Angela King, special adviser on gender issues and advancement of women at the United Nations, said: "Women were professors, lawyers and judges. They were journalists, writers and poets."

Groups, such as the Afghanistan Women's Council in Peshawar and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, have existed in Pakistan to fight for their role.

The women's cause is backed by the United Nations and the exiled former Afghan King Zahir Shah who have both said women should have a voice.

A U.N. resolution on Afghanistan agreed on November 14 said it supports a "broad-based, multi-ethnic government, fully representative of all the Afghan people," which should respect the human rights of all the Afghan people "regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion."

King added: "Our interest today is to ensure that this energy and concern will be harnessed towards convincing negotiators and leaders of Afghan factions alike of the benefits of including Afghan women as full partners in the decision-making process around the peace table, in humanitarian efforts and in reconstruction of the country."

She called on donor governments to insist that gender is "mainstreamed as a prerequisite for aid."

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"Let us never forget our Afghan sisters -- women and girls -- and their right to the basic freedoms that we all enjoy."

The U.N. has promised to increase the number of Afghan women it employs.

Leaders of the anti-Taliban coalition have indicated that women will be able to fully participate in Afghan society, a U.N. official has reported.

The U.N. coordinator for Afghanistan, Michael Sackett, said that the Northern Alliance's foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah had welcomed Afghan women's "full participation in society."

Exiled king Zahir, who lives in Rome, said he might send two women in his delegation to talks in Bonn on establishing a formula for a future Afghan government.

About 30 leaders and up to 70 participants are expected to attend Monday's talks.

"The role of women for the future of Afghanistan is very crucial and important," Hamid Sidig, a senior aide to the king said.

The wives of world leaders, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, have also stressed the need to restore the "voice" of Afghan women.

"For women to make a contribution they need opportunities, self-esteem and esteem in the eyes of their society," the wife of Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

But the U.N. has said they will not insist that women be included in the delegations, and some Afghan women are sceptical of how much say they will have.

Although women will not have to wear the burka they will still be forced to cover their heads in a chador, or headscarf.

No women have been invited to any meetings held by a group of Pashtun exiles led by Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani, women's groups have said.

Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and their inclusion in any future government has been recognised as crucial.

Cherie Blair said: "The women here today prove that the women of Afghanistan still have a spirit that belies their unfair, downtrodden image.

"We need to help them free that spirit and give them their voice back, so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see."


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