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As troops plan their exit, 'Green Scarves' seek safety - and a voice - for Afghan women

Afghan women wait for their turn to get registered at a voter registration centre in Kabul July 13, 2010.


When the world meets in Germany in two weeks to talk about Afghanistan, will women's voices be heard?

That's the question – and the concern – being expressed by a wide range of international human rights organizations and by Afghan women who are behind the Green Scarves for Solidarity campaign and a host of other initiatives.

The aim of the Bonn conference, which is expected to feature 90 foreign ministers and 1,000 participants, is to garner international pledges of long-term support for Afghanistan after the planned exit of foreign troops in three years.

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But like most big get-togethers of this type, the most intensive lobbying and politicking is taking place before the scripted conference. They concern who will go as official delegates, who will get face time with the VIPs, who will get access to the media and whose agenda will get attention.

The competition will be fierce.

President Hamid Karzai has made it clear his government delegation should be the only official voice, although the names of the delegates have not yet been made public. Fledgling opposition parties to Mr. Karzai also will be vying for publicity. Anti-war protesters from all over the world are also planning to converge on Bonn calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

The "bring the troops home now" movement will have the mass, but the women's activists hope to trump them with a message.

"Our message is to think hard about the implications of that," said Kate Hughes, a campaign director on humanitarian issues at Oxfam in London. "If you bring troops home quickly, what situation does that leave women in? What kind of safety and security is there for women?"

The Green Scarves effort meant to put pressure on the conference through petitions and an online photo gallery of famous and not-so-famous women wearing a green headscarf in solidarity with Afghans. Nearly 1,000 women have posted their photos. Another 14,000 people have signed online petitions. (More here and here.)

Afghan women activists, by no means a united front at home, have managed to come together to plead for unequivocal international support for the involvement of women in any peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban.

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Critics of Mr. Karzai's outreach to the militant group, which banned women from public life and careers during its time in power, fear women's rights will be bargained away on both the national and local level.

That the Taliban remains a danger for women was underlined just last week, when a woman and her daughter were stoned and shot to death in Ghazni, one of Afghanistan's biggest cities. The BBC's well-informed Afghan reporter, Bilal Sarwary reported that the hard-line religious group has banned girls from school and women from wedding parties.

The Taliban aside, Afghan women also worry that a too-hasty military retreat by war-weary NATO countries will threaten the gains women made in politics, education and the basic ability to speak out in their ultra-conservative society.

Human Rights Watch has already warned that women's rights issues risk being side-lined at the much smaller pre-conference meeting on Afghan civil society. The group warned that just three minutes will be allotted to each speaker, hardly enough to spark a vigorous debate.

The civil society meeting itself has been the subject of furious debate, with international groups like Oxfam objecting to the German government's selection of German political party foundations as the organizing body.

"They have perspectives and takes on things that go with their ideology," said Ms. Hughes of Oxfam. The best outcome from Bonn, she added, would be "significant pledges" to help build and support Afghan civil society and a commitment from donors to channel money directly to women's rights activities.

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About the Author
Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

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