Monday, October 16, 2006

Desperate sex work and the decline of Afghanistan

We've all heard it by now: Afghanistan is a corrupt state run by warlords, druglords and these guys formerly-known-as Taliban. Poverty is so pervasive and wrenching that farmers are loath to give up lucrative poppy crops for the paltry sums exchanged for pomegranates etc.

By no means do I mean to sound flip but we have heard all of this heartbreaking stuff before. At least, that was my initial reaction to the opening passages of Christian Parenti's latest piece in The Nation until I stumbled across this...
Women working in government offices--beyond the control of their husbands but still crushed by poverty--often double and triple their paltry $30 a month salaries through casual prostitution. "Cellphones make it very easy," says an Afghan driver. "The woman I am seeing has just two or three friends. I pay her a month's salary for an hour in the back room of my friend's store."
"Closing the Chinese brothels was a joke," says a friend of mine who contracts for a major Western intelligence service and has access to the highest levels of government in Kabul. "The palace is the biggest brothel of all--half the female screeners in the presidential guard engage in prostitution."
It is clear from even the most cursory analysis of the news that women are not faring well in Afghanistan. Marginal improvements here and there but even then, these are only as durable as security and the trust that they don't have to bet on the Taliban to keep them safe. Overall it's been much-too-little, far-far-too-late and obviously low-priority for the coalition. Here is Human Rights Watch's report from earlier this year:
Women and girls continue to face severe discrimination and suffer the worst effects of Afghanistan’s insecurity. Conditions are better than under the Taliban, but four years later progress has been inadequate and too slow. Women who are active in public life as political candidates, journalists, teachers, or NGO workers, or who criticize local rulers, still face disproportionate threats and violence.
Women and girls are subject to both formal and informal (customary) justice mechanisms that fail to protect their rights. Violence against women and girls remains rampant, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and forced marriage. Authorities often fail to investigate or prosecute these cases. Dozens of women are imprisoned around the country for “running away” from abusive or forced marriages, or for transgressing social norms by eloping. Some are placed in custody to prevent violent retaliation from family members. Women and girls continue to confront tight restrictions on their mobility, and many are not free to travel without a male relative and a burqa.
In mid-April 2005, a twenty-nine-year-old woman was beaten to death by her own family for adultery in Badakhshan province. And on May 4, three women were found murdered in Baghlan province with notes attached to the bodies warning women not to work for nongovernmental organizations or Western aid agencies.
The most recently available figures show that in Afghanistan, one woman died every thirty minutes due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Maternal mortality claims 1,600 women per every 100,000 births in the country. According to the most recently available figures, only 35 percent of girls of school age attend classes, with only 10 percent of girls attending secondary school. In five Afghan provinces in the south, at least 90 percent of school-age girls do not attend school.
So much time wasted. So much trust lost. Is there any time left? Here's Parenti again:
On one of my last nights in Kabul I retire to the spacious home of my acquaintance the intelligence contractor. Particularly fascinating is his insight into the mindset of Western diplomats and military officers. "Mention defeat and they say, 'It is unthinkable!' Well, it is coming, so you better well start thinking about it," says the contractor. He guesses the West's project in Afghanistan has between three and five years, and he thinks negotiation with the Taliban is its "only hope" for a graceful exit.
Surprisingly, that view has gained traction in several countries with ISAF troops. British Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Howells suggested that talks might be useful, and some in the Canadian New Democratic Party have agreed. Then, in early October, US Senate majority leader Bill Frist said the war in Afghanistan could "never" be won militarily and suggested that some Taliban be allowed into the government. One rumor in Kabul was that the Taliban's military commander, Mullah Dadullah, might be offered the Defense Ministry.
But a few posts for some top leaders won't end the war. There are already many ex-Talib in the Parliament and ministries, and they push the Afghan government in fundamentalist directions. As for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, few believe he would settle for anything less than ruling Afghanistan himself. And what about the Al Qaeda network operating on the border northeast of Kabul, in Nuristan and Kunar? It's hard to imagine the Bush Administration placating these champions of international jihad with the offer of an Afghan ministry.
Negotiations may help the West save face as it disengages, but it is unlikely they will do more than that. Ultimately, the US-built state in Afghanistan seems unreformable, and its future looks calamitous.
For further reading see Stephen Zunes' piece in Foreign Policy in Focus, ex-NPR journo Sarah Chayes' interview on DNow, and anything written by the Torstar's Mitch Potter in the last few months. I would particularly recommend Potter's interviews with young women in Kandahar. I'll leave you with an excerpt:
"It was so easy in the beginning because everyone was against the Taliban and they were removed very quickly and easily. But so many mistakes have been made. People were promised education and good government and prosperity and an end to corruption and they have seen very little of these things. So a big distance has grown between the people on one side and the government and international community on the other side.
"And the distance is growing. We still have hope. But it is fading."

4 Comments:

Anonymous Lily said...

I agree that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to give up their poppy crops, and the druglords that reign. The situation there is awful, much of the country is unstable, back in the hands of the Taliban.

Very thorough post, and nice to meet you. I came from Polly Jones. I opo in on her from time to time.

10/16/2006 8:03 PM  
Blogger Godammitkitty said...

Hi Lily! Thanks for dropping by.

Just visited "Gynocracy invasion" for the first time--what a great site! I don't know how I missed it.

10/17/2006 12:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Human Rights Watch comes up with a box of 5-minute Instant Democracy (just add water and stir) I will applaud their efforts. Their implication that something is wrong because 'we're not there yet' shows their naivete. Democracies are not instantiated overnight; this effort will take years, perhaps longer than a decade to reach even modest levels of democratic functionality. We have to remember that we are trying to bootstrap a democracy from a stone-age theocracy.

11/08/2006 9:48 AM  
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