IRIN, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, February 21, 2007

Women forced to quit work because of insecurity

Increasing insecurity in Helmand has been pushing more and more women out of the workforce back into their homes

LASHKAR GAH , (IRIN) - Jamila Niyazi has received several death threats as principal of Lashkar Gah girls’ high school in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Niyazi, who oversees 7,000 girls, is a target for ultra-conservative elements, including Taliban insurgents, who use propaganda, coercion and violence to spread their influence.

In 'night letters' delivered to her doorstep, followed up by threatening phone calls, the Taliban have repeatedly warned Niyazi to close down her school on the grounds that girls should not leave their homes.

She is not alone. Increasing insecurity in the southern province of Helmand, where the conflict between the anti-government elements and the international forces has intensified in recent months, has been pushing more and more women out of the workforce back into their homes.

The Afghan Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for security, agrees that safety has deteriorated, but says it does not have enough personnel to deal with the problem. Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said "there is no special unit for the protection of women", but noted that "all citizens have the same rights".

Bismalah, an Afghan farmer: "The only thing we need is security. This is our wish. If the Canadians give us hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars, but we are living in an insecure situation, we don't like money; we like security."
Associated Press, Feb. 22, 2007

Soraya Sobhrang, a member of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, however, feels "women are the first who are victimised when there is no rule of law or security". Reports from Helmand reveal that "young girls are unable to go to school and hospitals due to fear”.

But despite the fact that the Taliban are singling out women, little is being done to address the issue. Niyazi has yet to receive any help from the government or the security forces and has only managed to keep her school open by hiring security personnel to guard the school premises.

"I have not told the teachers about the threats and also hid the second letter from my own family," she said. Others, with fewer resources, however, find it more difficult.

Masooma, 19, and Noor Bibi, 40, worked in the vaccination unit of the local department of health until recently when they were told by their worried families to leave their jobs after a woman was reportedly kidnapped from Nad Ali district in the west of Helmand province.

"I know many women who are literate but have to stay at home because their families do not allow them to work," Bibi said. The right to work, secured with difficulty by women in this province in the conservative Pashtun heartland, is being reversed.

Not only are there financial implications, lowering women's standard of living, but without women teachers and doctors, women cannot be educated or seek medical treatment.

"If the families do not allow their daughters to study, we cannot have women teachers, doctors and engineers," Masooma pointed out. "If there are no women doctors, there is no treatment for women patients”, since women in this ultra-traditional area are not allowed to be attended by male doctors.

"If the families do not allow their daughters to study, we cannot have women teachers, doctors and engineers. If there are no women doctors, there is no treatment for women patients."

Undoubtedly the absence of Masooma and Noor Bibi from the vaccination programme has affected the health of many children since men are not allowed to enter homes to administer polio vaccines to children.

Fouzia Olumi, director of the department of women’s affairs in Helmand, said the department, which had been running tailoring, computer training and English language classes for women, has had to curtail its activities after the murder of the administrative unit director and threatening phone-calls to many employees. The department, set up four years ago, has struggled to survive in difficult circumstances with minimal resources.

"Many women used to come to our office asking us to find them some work," Olumi recalled, adding: "Many women will come again to work if security is restored."

There are no estimates or statistics available on the number of women who have been forced to leave their jobs because of insecurity and 'night letter' threats in Helmand, but specialists say the trend is worrying, particularly in view of ongoing fighting between NATO and Taliban insurgents in the area.

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