By Air Force Capt. Toni Tones
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 29, 2008 - Eight influential Afghan women met for a women affairs seminar hosted here by the Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team. Business owners, government leaders, educators, multimedia and nongovernmental organization representatives from Kabul, Kapisa and Parwan provinces met April 12 with Suzie Schwartz, wife of Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, U.S. Transportation Command commander, and openly discussed women affairs in Afghanistan.
Education, employment and security were the common themes addressed by representatives at the seminar.
"Kate," a Kabul multimedia representative who lived in the Unites States and recently returned to Afghanistan, said health is a primary concern for Afghan women, with education being secondary.
"There are 85,000 widows trying to do everything for their families, but there is no money," she said. "What can they do if they can't feed themselves and their children?"
"Mary," another Kabul multimedia representative, who has lived in Afghanistan her entire life, disagreed. She said security is the primary concern for Afghan women.
"Where there's no security, there is no education, no health, and no employment," she said. "The Afghan women are used by politicians to get foreign aid money, but our conditions have not improved."
"Jan," an up-and-coming nongovernmental organization representative, echoed both women's comments, but said education, health, and employment are equally important and must be addressed.
"It's circular," she said. "Education, employment and security -- each problem feeds itself. If you have no work, you can't get medicine. If you have no education, you can't get work. Without security, you can't have anything. [Afghanistan has had] bad neighbors, and if the United States leaves, we won't have any security."
Mary recalled how Afghanistan was before U.S.-led operations knocked the Taliban out of power in 2001.
"Three issues resulted from the Taliban era: terrorism, narcotics and women's oppression," she said. "Since then, measures have been taken to decrease terrorism and narcotics, but very little change has occurred for women's rights."
Another member of the panel voiced her agreement.
"Lots of promises were made -- to include some by the U.S.," said "Sally," a refugee and women's issues advocate who has lived in the United States. "Among them was the promise to free Afghan women. That's a big statement. There was an expectation of political and social liberation.
"Yes, we now have representation in parliament and other governmental agencies," she continued, "but there's been little change in the economic and education arenas. There needs to be a dramatic change in agenda by the international community."
Although Afghanistan is a male-dominated society, thecountry's women are sick of the conflict and want to see change, Army Lt. Col. Bill Andersen, Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team commander, said.
"I spoke to the governors of Parwan and Kapisa provinces about my plans to be personally involved in women's affairs, and it seemed to be well accepted," Andersen said. "My team will ensure female contractors have the opportunity to compete for projects, female entrepreneurs have access to small-business opportunities, and females have the opportunity to get an education through the development of dorms and schools and book purchases.
"This is their society and culture, and they will address theses issues at their own time and pace," he continued. "In the meantime, we are here to help facilitate the development of a stable and secure environment for all Afghans -- men and women."
(Air Force Capt. Toni Tones serves with 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs. The names of the Afghan women were changed to protect their identities.)