Monday, August 24, 2009

Action Alert: Afghan Women and Girls Need Our Help

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NOW Action Alert

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August 24, 2009
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Action Needed
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Continued Threats to Afghan Women Require Support in U.S. and Worldwide

Afghan Women and Girls Need Our Help
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If there is a hell on earth for women and girls, it surely must be found in Afghanistan. Desperate poverty persists and gender-based violence is increasing. Nearly 200 schools have been bombed or set on fire and school girls have had acid thrown in their faces. Illiteracy is over 80 percent among women, and the country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Many women are still forced to wear the total body cover of the burka and may not leave home without a male escort. There is an epidemic of suicide among young women who set themselves on fire to escape the severe repression and poverty that they face. A new law, criticized as a trade for votes from the Shia religious minority in the presidential campaign, strips away Shia women's recently guaranteed constitutional rights.
Action Needed:
The Afghan Women Empowerment Act, S. 229, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), would give Afghan women and girls a chance at a better life with more opportunities. Please send a message to your senators asking them to co-sponsor and take a leadership role on passing S. 229. Use our formatted message or write one of your own.
Despite the various efforts made by the United Nations and the U.S. government to improve the lives of women and girls in war-torn Afghanistan, little progress has been made. Hospitals and clinics are scarce, poorly staffed and dramatically under-equipped. Women, especially those in the rural areas, do not have access to even the most basic health care services. Currently, Afghanistan has a very high maternal and infant mortality rate; for every six births, one mother will die as a result of inadequate access to medical attention.
Even though women were granted certain rights in a new national constitution, Afghan women face violence and intimidation in their everyday lives. Oppression of women has increased recently as a result of the resurgence of the Taliban and other religious extremists. These groups have been responsible for scores of attacks against school girls and teachers to prevent them from obtaining an education. In certain parts of Afghanistan, women must still wear the head-to-toe burka and are constrained from participating in public life.
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Bowing to pressure from religious extremists, President Hamid Karzai has backed the Personal Status Law permitting Shia men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands. The final version of the legislation also grants guardianship of children exclusively to fathers and grandfathers and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. Further, the law allows rapists to avoid prosecution by paying victims who are injured while being raped! International public outrage as well as an outcry from Afghan women's rights leaders earlier this year caused Karzai to reconsider this barbaric set of proposals. Karzai was criticized for backing the regressive Personal Status Law as being a trade for votes from the Shia minority, which constitutes about 20 percent of the country's 33 million population. But the new law quietly took effect on July 27, with little improvement, according to Human Rights Watch.
Other news is somewhat more positive. Thanks to continuing pressure from women's rights activists in Afghanistan and abroad, there has been a positive action in the Parliament that suggests there is some hope for Afghan women. In mid-July, President Karzai signed a bill which would punish those who perpetrate violence against women. Under this bill, men who have prevented women from getting an education, working, or obtaining healthcare can be punished for up to six months in prison. This is a commendable act by the Afghan government, but it is not nearly enough. And, as we have seen in other countries, laws to protect women are often ignored.
Passage of the Afghan Women Empowerment Act (S. 229) is crucial. This bill will fully commit the U.S. government in helping advance the rights and well-being of Afghan women. It will provide necessary equipment, medical supplies, and other healthcare assistance in order to reduce maternal and infant mortality. Women and children will have greater access to life-saving immunizations. Constant exposure to violence can have detrimental effects on the mental health of women; this bill will establish programs to provide mental health services.
In addition, S. 229 would establish primary and secondary schools for girls that will offer mathematics, sciences, and languages as well as expand technical and vocational training for women to develop skills needed to support their families. Funding would be provided for programs to protect women and girls against various forms of violence such as sexual assault, physical abuse, trafficking, abduction, and exploitation. This includes developing emergency shelters for women and girls who are facing danger and violence.
We have an opportunity to make a substantial difference in the lives of Afghan women and girls. Contact your senators and ask them to co-sponsor and help pass the Afghan Women Empowerment Act (S. 229) that will help offer millions of women a chance to live a better life.
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