The Sunday Times -Plus, Sep.10, 2000

Women in crisis

By Feizal Samath

Whenever representatives from Afghanistan's main women's rights group go abroad to attend conferences, they carry with them carpets or handicrafts and sell them to other delegates to raise much-needed funds for the organisation.

"I brought a few carpets along and want to sell them to delegates," said Aeman, a young member of the foreign committee of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). "We need the funds badly and it is customary to carry these items whenever we attend conferences abroad."

Aeman, like many other Afghan women activists, uses a pseudonym when travelling abroad to avoid being harassed by Afghan's Taliban regime where women are a suppressed group.

"We are living under a very repressive regime. Women have no right to education or to health and are forced to stay indoors. Please tell the world," pleaded Aeman, who was attending an Asian conference in Colombo on the issue of violence against women.

The two-day meeting on August 19 and 20 organized by the Thai-based Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development brought together women's rights workers from Indonesia, Korea, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Fiji, Japan, Pakistan, Tibet, Bhutan, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and Kampuchea.

It was a regional consultation with Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women, ahead of a report she is submitting to the UN General Assembly in December on violence against women.

"I am preparing this report on violence against women and was gathering the views of activists in the region. I can't tell you right now the contents of the report as it is being presented to the UN in December," Ms. Coomaraswamy said.

The conference, closed to the media, discussed the crisis in Afghanistan, the emergence of the women's rights movement in Indonesia and Japan's comfort women and other issues like migrant workers, domestic and sexual violence, all of which are predominant features of the Asian woman.

Aeman told the conference that her country was a forgotten nation in the eyes of the world.

"While the world focuses on Kashmir or Bosnia all the time, Afghanistan is like a cemetery a forgotten corner in the planet, a country dominated by the most brutal and ferocious group of religious fascists," she said.

Aeman, in a speech made available to The Sunday Times, said women are beaten in Afghanistan, stoned in public for not wearing clothes according to Taliban rules, banned from education, using make-up, laughing aloud in public, playing any sport or watching movies or TV.

"Homes where a woman is present have their windows painted so that outsiders can never see her," she said. Women are not allowed to work in Afghanistan nor be seen in public without a male relative. Widows starve to death, beg on the streets, take to prostitution or just commit suicide. Desperate mothers sell their children on the streets as they can't feed them, she added.

Aeman said rape was commonplace with even a seven-year-old girl and a 70-year old grandmother being victims. The young activist, who is now working in Pakistan as a RAWA activist, like many others studied at a RAWA school secretly run in dozens of homes. The location of these schools is changed from time to time to escape detection.

"Girls are barred from education. The Taliban says schools are the gateways to hell. Even males have access only to religious education. At RAWA schools, girls are given a rounded education and taught literacy, nursing, carpet weaving and handicrafts," said Aeman, whose mother is a RAWA activist in Afghanistan.

RAWA's founder, Meena was killed in 1987 by Muslim fundamentalists.

Aeman's plea to Ms. Coomaraswamy was for the UN to intervene in the Afghan crisis.

For the Indonesian woman, the crisis is not as bad. According to Kamala Chandrakirana, Secretary General of Indonesia's National Commission on Violence against Women, the turning point in the women's rights movement came during the riots of May 1998 when Chinese women were raped by the dozen.

"People were compelled to sit up and take notice of the violence against women. Until that time, domestic violence was unheard of and not even documented although it may have been happening on a large scale," she said.

Chandrakirana said Indonesia's society was in transition after decades of authoritarian and military rule and the system is in the process of cracking. "In that sense we are at a turning point."

She said women under President Suharto regime had a very limited role as mothers and wives and were excluded from access to economic resources. "They were considered dependents and treated as objects of development. Laws didn't recognize domestic violence. There was no legal mechanism for women to address their problems, even when they were violently beaten at home."

Things have changed since the May 1998 crisis in which the authoritarian regime led by President Suharto was forced to bow to the reformist movement. During the May 1998 riots, the minority Chinese community was the target of rioters and at least 180 women were raped

"The rape became a controversial issue. The with victims were either severely traumatized or too scared to speak out in public. But the issue became a public problem and the upshot of that was that violence against women became part of people's consciousness and suddenly everybody understood what violence against women meant," said Chandrakirana.

She said women activists demanded action against perpetrators and communities started setting up crisis centres for women. There is now increasing awareness of violence against women, and more and more women are going to these crisis centres.

"It may mean two things - one there is an increase in domestic violence or that there is more awareness of the problem now," the Indonesian rights activist noted.

Chandrakirana said the entire phenomenon of violence against women became very clear "with a bang" during the same time when the nation was shifting or changing its political character.

But, she said, issues like sexual exploitation of women in seven regions in Indonesia where separate rebel groups are fighting for independence remain unresolved. "Rape and sexual assault of women by soldiers are common in these areas," she added.


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