NATO summit must protect Afghan women: UN

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan sounded warnings Saturday over the future of women's rights and schooling for girls ahead of a NATO summit focused on the withdrawal of troops from the war-torn nation.

There is widespread concern that gains women have made in the 10 years since the overthrow of the notorious Taliban regime could be lost in attempts to broker peace with the hardline Islamists as NATO troops pull out in 2014.

The Taliban, in power from 1996 until a US-led invasion in 2001, banned girls from going to school, whipped women in the street if they wore anything other than the all-enveloping burqa and stoned to death those accused of adultery.

The NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21 must ensure that special measures are taken to protect the rights of Afghan women as coalition forces prepare to leave, UN organisations said.

"Now is the time to deal with the longer-term security and protection needs of Afghan women who have long borne the brunt of the war in Afghanistan," said Jan Kubis, special representative for the UN secretary general in Afghanistan.

"Women's specific protection needs should be central to plans being made as the Afghan national army and police prepare to take an increasing lead in security operations."

Kubis's remarks came in a joint statement by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), UN Women and the United Nations Population Fund.

A separate UNAMA statement condemned a wave of insurgent attacks on schools, calling for more protection of the right to an education -- especially for girls.

In the past week a girls' secondary school was set on fire in eastern Nangahar province and an attack on education officials travelling in neighbouring Paktika province left five dead and seven wounded.

"Over the last year UNAMA has monitored unacceptable levels of violence by anti-government elements directed against schools, education institutions, their staff and/or students," the UN mission said.

It urged the Afghan government and international military forces to "ensure that effective security measures are in place to protect schools, students and teachers".

In Chicago, heads of state and government will consider funding for the Afghan security forces after the transition and how that can be linked to support for the protection of human rights, UNAMA said.

One way of doing this would be for the paramilitary police to be trained and equipped for a greater civilian policing role and "sensitised to address effectively cases of violence against women and girls".

While girls are back in school and women have won much greater protection under the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, rights activists see ominous signs on the horizon.

Leading Afghan women's rights champion, lawmaker and presidential hopeful, Fawzia Koofi, says her biggest fear is that these gains will be the first to be sacrificed in efforts to broker peace with the Taliban.

"Compromise is happening already. Talibanisation is a process, people within government are already promoting Taliban ideology and Taliban thinking," she told AFP in a recent interview.

"There is great uncertainty and confusion about the future, and worry and concern among women."

In March, Karzai indicated support for an edict by the Ulema Council, the nation's highest Islamic authority, saying "men are fundamental and women are secondary".

The edict went on to list a series of prohibitions against women, including working in the same offices as men and travelling without a male companion, and suggested that in some circumstances wife-beating was appropriate.

Karzai "openly supported this, he said this is what the people of Afghanistan want", said Koofi, who chairs parliament's women and human rights committee.

"I don't think this is what they want. It is true we are all Muslims, but our understanding of Islam is different from the understanding of the Taliban."

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