(Reuters) - Hundreds of influential Afghans have arrived in Kabul for a peace jirga — a large assembly — aimed at starting a peace process with the Taliban.
The policy is largely driven by the Afghan government but has the green light from Washington which is preparing for a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan starting July 2011.
The Taliban and other key insurgent groups have not been formally invited to the jirga but their supporters are expected to attend. Some activists are worried that any negotiations with such groups could lead to a forfeiting of women’s rights.
Following are some facts about women in Afghanistan.
For five years under the Taliban’s Islamist regime, women were banned from education and work. Since the Taliban fell in 2001, women’s rights have significantly improved.
But in southern and eastern provinces women are often governed by very traditional practices. In rural communities wives are strong figureheads in their households, but it is still taboo for women and girls to go to school or work.
Afghan women are still among the worst off in the world and violence and rape against them is a “huge problem,” according to the United Nations.
Forced marriage, often of young girls, is still common in some rural areas where traditional and religious ways of settling disputes are still practiced where the government is weak.
There have been many reports of families of young girls who have been raped, being forced to sell their daughter to her rapist because their community decides it is the only way her family can recover from the shame of the rape, the U.N. has said.
Last year a law for Afghanistan’s minority Shi’a Muslims caused international outcry because one of its articles were seen as permitting marital rape.
U.S. President Barack Obama called the law “abhorrent” and it was eventually reviewed by President Hamid Karzai and its contentious articles were changed.
Karzai’s first cabinet after being elected president in 2004 contained three women ministers and he had a female vice president.
That number went down after last year’s election and Karzai has still not finalized his line-up of ministers. So far there are two female ministers and one acting minister. The women’s affairs ministry has always been led by a woman.
The Afghan parliament uses a quota system to ensure that at least 25 percent of seats are given to women.
While affirmative action is seen as necessary by many, some have complained that in many provinces women get seats purely based on their gender and many would not otherwise get a seat because their actual votes are so low.
Outside of Afghanistan’s urban centers such as Kabul and Herat, where Afghanistan’s only female chief prosecutor works, Afghan women are poorly represented in local government.
Last year, however, the first female city mayor of Afghanistan was appointed to work in the province of Daikundi, a very remote and impoverished central Afghan province.
Women are also not immune from accusations of corruption or getting jobs based on who their male relatives are. Some MPs have complained that some women have government jobs or are lawmakers based on who their male relatives are.
Afghanistan has the second worst maternal mortality rate in the world, after Sierra Leone. The United Nation’s agency for women in Afghanistan has said that for many women in the country, becoming pregnant is akin to having a potentially fatal illness.
For every 100,000 live births, 1,600 women die.
Poverty, a tough terrain in many parts of the country, a shortage of female medical staff and cultural practices have contributed to Afghanistan’s high maternal mortality rate.
In the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan the problem is most acute. It has the worst maternal mortality rate in the world: there are 6,500 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
Although the number of midwives has increased over the past few years, it still significantly undershoots the 8,000 needed to help bring down the level of maternal mortality, the U.N. said.
The number of girls and women in education since the 1980s, before the country slipped into war, has soared — spiking after 2001 when the Taliban were deposed.
Figures from the ministry of women’s affairs collated in 2007 show that just 24 percent of girls were in secondary education and the drop-out rate increases from the first to the last grade.
Cultural and religious practices still prevent many girls from going to schools, especially in rural areas, according to the United Nations.
Even in Kabul, a relatively progressive city, compared with other parts of Afghanistan girls are often harassed and bullied by young men for attending school.
According to the ministry of education between January 2006 and December 2008, there were 1,153 attacks on schools, from small arms explosions to death threats. The majority of attacks, 40 percent, were carried out against girls schools.
In the past year there has been a spate of suspected gas attacks on girls schools and acid attacks on girls. The Taliban have said they are not involved.
(Sources: World Health Organisation, Reuters reports, UNIFEM, World Bank, Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Afghan Ministry of Education)
Reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani