KABUL: Decades of civil strife and rule by the hard-line Taliban regime have left most Afghan women and girls battered and illiterate. The country's only female government minister faces the daunting task of providing them with education and protection in the face of repressive social customs that would deny them both.
''We've had three decades of war in Afghanistan, which have had very bad consequences for women,'' Minister for Women's Affairs Hussn Banu Ghazanfar said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''It takes time to solve these problems.''
Five years after the Taliban's fall, women are no longer beaten if they leave home unaccompanied by their male relatives. Girls can go to school, and 25 per cent of Afghan parliamentarians are women -- as mandated by law.
But life remains bleak for women, who are still regarded as second-class citizens. Many women and girls face domestic violence and forced marriage, and are kept on short leashes in the conservative, violence-plagued country.
Ghazanfar, appointed in August, is trying to draft laws making violence against women illegal, and to push the government to teach women and society about the rights women deserve.
She said the most pressing issues are violence against women and their low education levels, particularly in rural areas -- home to most of Afghanistan's 30 million people. Only about 15 per cent of Afghan women are literate. Domestic violence affects ''an overwhelming majority'' of Afghan women and girls, according to a recent report from Womankind, an international women's rights group.
The Ministry of Women's Affairs has drafted policies for all the other government ministries that address women's rights.
''The elimination of violence against women does not work if we just conduct seminars and workshops,'' Ghazanfar said. ''If we create specific laws to protect women from violence, women will have more confidence.'' Legislation is in the works to eliminate forced marriages -- which often lead to domestic violence -- and to create safe shelters for homeless women. The ministry is working with international aid donors to provide vocational training in cooking, tailoring and handicraft making, to economically empower uneducated women.
Unlike most Afghan women, Ghazanfar is not married and has no children. But she, too, was sequestered to her home during the reign of the Taliban, who came to power in the late 1990s and were forced out by a US-led invasion in 2001.
The 49-year-old former linguistics and literature dean at Kabul University spent those years in her large library and translated four books from Russian into Dari, one of Afghanistan's main languages. Unlike many women here, she had the support of her family to pursue her endeavours.
Her years in an ivory tower prepared her for the road ahead. She hopes that all Afghan women one day will have access to education.
''It's not important which position I have, but it's more important that I'm working for women _ the most needy women of the world,'' Ghazanfar said. ''I'm really happy here, working for the women of Afghanistan.''—AP