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Advocates welcome Taliban decree barring forced marriages but call for more

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ISLAMABAD, Dec 3 (Reuters) - A decree released by the Taliban barring forced marriage was a major step forward, two leading Afghan women said on Friday, but questions remained about whether the hardline Islamist group would extend women's rights around work and education.

Afghanistan's Taliban government on Friday released a decree which said women should not be considered "property" and must consent to marriage. read more

"This is big, this is huge ... if it is done as it is supposed to be, this is the first time they have come up with a decree like this," said Mahbouba Seraj, the executive director of the Afghan Women's Skills Development Center speaking from Kabul on a Reuters Next conference panel on Friday.

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The international community, who have frozen billions of dollars in funds for Afghanistan, has made women's and human rights a key element of any future engagement with Afghanistan.

Seraj said that even before the Taliban took over the country on Aug. 15, Afghan politicians had struggled to form such a clear policy on women's rights around marriage.

"Now what we have to do as the women of this country is we should make sure this actually takes place and gets implemented," said Seraj, whose shelter is a refuge for vulnerable women.

Roya Rahmani, the former ambassador for Afghanistan to the United States, echoed her optimism and added that it was likely partly an attempt to smooth over international fears over the group's track record on women's rights as the Taliban administration seeks to get in funding released.

"An amazing thing if it does get implemented," Rahmani told the Reuters Next panel, adding details such as who would ensure that girls' consent was not coerced by family members would be key.

"It's a very smart move on the part of Taliban at this point because one of the (pieces of) news that is attracting the West's attention is the fact little girls are being sold as property to others in order to feed the rest of the family," she said.

Afghan Ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani speaks during an interview with Reuters in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

MUSIC 'FADED OUT'

During its previous rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned women from leaving the house without a male relative and full face and head covering and girls from receiving education, coerced men to grow beards and barred the playing of music.

The group say they have changed but many women, advocates and officials remain sceptical.

International governments have frozen billions of dollars in central bank reserves and cut off development funding for Afghanistan, plunging the heavily aid-dependent economy into crisis and leaving economists and aid groups warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Seraj said the Taliban now needed to go further, calling for the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid to release more rules to clarifying women's rights to access public spaces.

"What I am really waiting to hear next from the same group, from the same person is for him to send the decree regarding the education and right of work for the women of Afghanistan, that would be absolutely phenomenal," she said.

Also speaking on the panel, Ahmad Sarmast, the founder and director of Afghanistan National Institute of Music, cautioned that the Taliban had shown few signs of change when it came to allowing the arts and freedom of expression.

As he facilitated hundreds of students and their families to flee the country and escaped himself to Portugal, the Taliban shuttered his institute and other music and arts faculties in the country.

Though the group had not issued their policy on music, he said he was in contact with many Afghan musicians who had hidden their instruments and were living in fear.

"There's not an official decree banning music or music education but the practice is here," he said," he said. "Music has faded out of the air of Afghanistan."

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Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Rupam Jain; Editing by Alison Williams

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