PhotoWomen under house arrest in Afghanistan

The New York Times
Editorial, July 13, 1998

Women are essentially under house arrest in Afghanistan. The Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group that runs most of the country, has issued edict after edict keeping women and girls from studying, working, receiving medical care and even leaving their homes.

International organizations and private relief groups want to help women, but to get permission they need to compromise with the Taliban. The question of how far to go has no good answer, but an agreement the United Nations signed recently is a terrible mistake.

The U.N. decided a written agreement was necessary after it had to stop all but emergency work in Afghanistan in March.

The problem was Taliban restrictions, especially one forcing all Islamic women aid workers to be accompanied by a father, brother or husband when in public.

The agreement makes no progress on this front.

It commits the Taliban to refrain from arresting or harassing U.N. workers and to allow the U.N. to build some schools and improve the largest women's hospital, which has no medicine, equipment or running water. In return, however, the U.N. put its signature on language that endorses some of the Taliban's most extreme discrimination -- for example, that resumption of health care and education for women "will need to be gradual."

Such a compromise might be justified if it were the only way to maintain lifesaving work with women.

But a spokeswoman said the U.N. needs to be in Afghanistan to coordinate its projects, which other groups carry out, and to maintain its credibility with Afghans. This the agreement will not help.

Since the agreement, the Taliban has decreed the closure of home schools for girls older than 8. It has ordered all relief groups to move into a compound with no running water or electricity.

It has ordered that medical care be denied to women not accompanied by a close male relative -- which given the number of men killed in the war, many women lack. There is no easy way to work with a Government so willing to sacrifice half its people. But the U.N. should not lead the Taliban to believe that anyone outside endorses its bizarre views.

h t t p : / / w w w . r a w a . o r g