Kofi Annan calls for greater gender-equality

A report released on Wednesday by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls for increased international support for measures to promote gender equality in Afghanistan. "Afghan women should be seen as the primary stakeholders and agents of change who have identified their own needs and priorities in all sectors of society," the report said.

Entitled "Discrimination against women and girls in Afghanistan", the report will be considered by the UN Commission on the Status of Women next month.

Reacting to the issues raised in the document, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has warned that if the Northern Alliance stays in power, incidents of violence against women will increase.

"The Northern Alliance are in power, and they have ruled before, so we know what their past record in dealing with women is like," Danesh Hamid, a spokeswoman for RAWA in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, told IRIN. "Many women committed suicide under the Northern Alliance to stop themselves from being raped," she asserted.

The UN report highlights the fact that women suffered "massive abuses during the civil war and the Taliban regime", and urges that special attention be focused on the human rights of Afghan women and girls, calling for their effective participation in civil, cultural, economic, political and social life.

During the rule of the brutal Taliban regime, women were invisible, banned from being educated and from working. Although women are now gradually beginning to live a normal lives again, there is still much work to be done, RAWA maintains. "Our sources on the ground in Afghanistan have told us that the situation for women has not changed much. Many are still wearing the burka [the long all-enveloping garment worn by Muslim women], because they are scared that they will be attacked [if they do not]," Hamid said.

RAWA has long maintained that a better Afghan government is needed in order to improve the situation of women in the country. "These people [Northern Alliance] are the same as the Taliban so far as we are concerned," she said, adding that the Western world and media were still very misguided in the way they saw women under the new government. "Their situation has not changed overnight," Hamid stressed.

She also raised concerns over the acceptance of the Northern Alliance by the international community. "I have attended international conferences recently, and I can tell you that the outside world is not aware of what these people [Northern Alliance] are capable of doing." She added that if the international community wanted to bring about change it must effect a political transformation.

Commenting on the security situation, the RAWA spokeswoman said: "There needs to be a peacekeeping force for the whole of the country. Afghanistan is by no means safe, especially for women."

Established in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in 1977, RAWA has been at the forefront of promoting women's rights in Afghanistan, and has a network of about 2,000 women who worked underground during the rule of the Taliban.