Thousands of Afghan women marked International Women's Day in the capital Kabul and some provinces on Tuesday 8 March.
In Kabul, women pointed to the appointment on 4 March of the first female provincial governor and the appointment of three women cabinet ministers and several deputy ministers as positive evidence that women were making progress in male-dominated conservative Afghan society.
Speakers at the main rally in the capital pointed to the fact that of more than 8 million Afghans who voted in the presidential poll of October 2004, more than 40 percent were female. Also for the first time in the country’s history, there was a woman among 16 presidential candidates in last October's elections.
Although progress has been made, discrimination against and abuse of women continues, activists said. Human rights abuses against women such as domestic violence and forced marriages are all too common and many women in the country suffer from poor access to legal resources and exclusion from public life. Hundreds of thousands of girls are still barred from attending school due to traditions that keep them at home.
"Of course, women in Afghanistan still encounter challenges. Girls are married in their childhood or married off to resolve disputes. These practices are cruel, against our religion, and no longer acceptable, President Hamid Karzai said at the rally.
In 2004, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)
recorded 110 cases of self-immolation by women trying to escape forced marriages and domestic violence. More than 90 percent of women in Afghanistan have no formal identity papers or proof of citizenship.
"Achievements on paper are not enough, only criticising violence against women is not enough, those who violate women's rights should be prosecuted," Sima Samar, the head AIHRC told IRIN. Samar said the chief problems Afghan women face were lack of access to healthcare, lack of awareness and access to legal services, lack of shelter and poverty.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Afghan women have a literacy level of only 14 percent - some three times less than Afghan men. The percentage of women with access to primary, secondary or tertiary education stands at a mere 27 percent, less than half that of their male counterparts.
Women in Afghanistan have an estimated earned yearly income of only US $402, three times less than Afghan men. One woman dies from pregnancy-related causes approximately every 30 minutes in Afghanistan and maternal mortality rates are 60 times higher than in industrialised countries. In Afghanistan, some 70 percent of all tuberculosis cases are among women.
Afghans have enshrined gender equality in the Constitution (Article 22) and ensured that women have 25 percent representation in the Lower House of Parliament (Article 83) and 17 percent representation in the Upper House of Parliament (Article 84). Afghanistan has also ratified, without reservation, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Children (CEDAW) in 2003.
"Luckily we have an excellent constitution. Article 22 guarantees the equality of men and women. But the problem is not the constitution but its implementation," Suraya Sobhrang, acting minister of women's affairs (MoWA) told IRIN.
MoWA was established in 2002 to promote the advancement of Afghan women. "In six months we had 500 cases of forces marriages. At the same time, it is very early for our traditional society to accept 100 percent implementation of law in terms of women's freedom," Subhrang noted.
The theme for International Women's Day in Afghanistan this year is 'Active political participation of women is the basis of development and prosperity in the country,' the acting minister added.