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AFGHANISTAN: The poorest country outside Africa

16th August 2010

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Barely a day goes by without news about the conflict in Afghanistan splashed across our television screens and newspaper front pages.afghanistan

British troops have been based in the country since 2001 and today, nine years after the fall of the Taliban, more than 9,000 troops remain.
In pursuit of the goal of a stable state, more than 250 British soldiers have been killed and the situation remains grim.

Indeed, the number of Afghan civilians killed amid worsening insurgency was higher in 2009 than any other year since the Taliban were ousted, with 2,118 killed in 2008 and 2,412 in 2009, according to UNAMIR figures.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was returned to power in 2009 but the disputed elections opened up a new period of political upheaval, resulting in severe to increased weakening of central authority. The Taliban still hold sway over large areas of the country.

With no immediate likelihood of militarily defeating the Taliban, delegations from 66 countries, plus Prime Minister Gordon Brown, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai, met in London in January to agree a £87m fund to win over low-level Taliban fighters and hand over control in some provinces to Afghan forces by the end of the year.Despite the familiar headlines and bloody images of war however, few people outside the country realise that Afghanistan is the poorest country in the world outside Africa.

Less than a third of the 33.6m population has access to clean water, and a staggering 40% of people do not meet their daily food needs.

And while HIV is not currently widespread, high numbers of injecting drug users, abject poverty, a devastated health system, large numbers of refugees, illiteracy, and ignorance of prevention, means that HIV is a potential ticking time bomb.

Afghanistan also has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world with an Afghan woman dying in childbirth every 30 minutes, and one in four children dying before their fifth birthday.

"Poverty in Afghanistan fuels the conflict because it drives people to desperate measures," says Christian Aid's Tabitha Ross.

A military intervention will not bring security without simultaneous investment in development."


Widespread lack of rule-of-law, conflict, corruption, and a government that is barely accountable to its people at all, makes national-level change in Afghanistan extremely difficult although not impossible - to achieve.

In March 2009, the Afghan president, Karzai, signed a controversial new law that set out family law specifically for Afghanistan's Shia minority. Among some of its articles were provisions stating that women may not refuse sex with their husbands unless they are ill or menstruating, and that they cannot leave the house without their husband's permission.

Predictably, this sparked national and international outcry amongst human rights activists, including those at Christian Aid partner, the Afghan Women's Network (AWN).

In response, as well as organising and taking part in demonstrations on the streets, AWN legal experts briefed MPs, including Sabrina Saqeb, the youngest MP from Kabul, about the contraventions to Islamic Sharia law and the Afghan constitution, and proposed amendments.
Ms. Saqeb and her colleagues then lobbied other MPs, and due to the scale of protest, Karzai partially backtracked and called for a review.
However, it was a hard struggle, and one that will continue long into the future.

"We couldn't manage to change this law as much as we wished," explains 28-year-old Saqeb.

"We just managed to change four articles to the benefit of women, which was very important to us but this was not everything we wanted.

"We managed to change an article regarding the legal marital age - it should be 18 years for boys and 16 years old for girls, but within the Shia family law it was not specified."

Fortunately, as a result of lobbying by AWN and other human rights organisations, the Shia law was brought in line with the civil law of Afghanistan.

Another important change was in the area of child custody in case of divorce. The new Shia law proposed that a mother could keep her children only until two years old for boys and seven for girls, after which they pass into the legal care of the father or grandfather.

AWN's lobbyists managed to amend this to eight years old for boys, and nine for girls - not everything they wanted but a good start.

"Hopefully for the next time we will increase it," Saqeb smiles.

Perhaps the most shocking article states that a wife cannot refuse her husband's demand for sex unless she is ill or menstruating.

Frustratingly, until now AWN have not been able to eliminate this clause, despite it being flagrantly, in Saqeb's words, "against women's rights and the human dignity of a woman."

Despite her frustrations, Saqeb is more determined in her fight than ever.

"We'll prove that we're the women of Afghanistan. We know what Islam says about our rights, so they cannot cheat us any more..
"We're asking for more women ministers, governors, ambassadors and deputy ministers, because we have to get into the system before we can change it.

"Afghanistan's democracy is a baby democracy," she continues.
"The international community helped us to deliver this baby democracy and so they have responsibility to help us to bring it up.

"It may fall once, twice, three times when he or she is trying to learn to walk again so we need someone to hold our hands, to teach us how to.

"It takes time but finally we will learn how to walk alone."


Surprisingly, the major risk of new HIV/AIDS infections in Afghanistan relates to drug injecting, although getting the prevention message across to local people is often difficult given that only 28% of Afghans are literate.

To help tackle stigma and raise awareness and education levels about HIV/AIDS, as well as supporting journalism development, Christian Aid partner, Afghan Journalists' Centre (AJC), has used innovative radio and television broadcasts since its formation in 2008.

"After many years of war and conflict, and no freedom of the media or free speech, there are not enough Afghan journalists with experience and skills in how to research and write a story well, how to produce radio or television, and so on," explains AJC co-founder, Sharmila Hashimi, 23.

"We also felt that the media can play a really important role in education and awareness-raising, and that this role would need support and development as we do not have a lot of high quality journalists here and very few resources."

So far AJC has established a free internet cafe where journalists can send their reports quickly and reliably to national and international media, as well as focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness-raising projects through radio and television shows.

"HIV is a new thing in Afghanistan," says Hashimi.

"We must have information about it so that we can prevent the spread of this disease. "It's not a big problem here yet, but we have a saying in Dari 'vaqaye behtar az tadarvy ast', 'prevention is better than cure'. We must educate people about it so that they can protect against it."

Whilst researching the issue, AJC found a 2006 World Bank study stating that 3% of injecting drug users in Kabul was HIV positive.
"It doesn't sound very much, but at the same time one third of injecting drug users said they shared needles and equipment, and also 69% said they paid for sex," continues Hashimi.

"Drug addiction is a big problem here and there are a lot of men who are addicted, in the towns but also in the villages.

"Some men go to work in Iran and come back addicted to opium or heroin or crystal. They share needles and are at high risk of infection, and then they endanger their families."

Drug addiction is more of a problem among men than women, but a few women are also forced to take drugs by their husbands, according to Hashimi.

"He does not want her to fight or to shout at him for being a drug addict, so he makes her one too.

"All of these behaviours together make for a serious problem beginning to emerge, especially when there is so little education or awareness among the people about HIV.

"Afghanistan is very poor there are no professional counsellors, there's no health education and very little healthcare," she continues.

"In your country, if people get HIV, at least there is medicine and they can still live a healthy life, but here, if someone gets HIV, they will die very quickly because we are very poor."

Fortunately AJC believe that radio and television have a significant role to play in addressing these problems, especially since so many Afghans cannot read or write.

"We have a local doctor DJ called Dr. Shohar, who is an expert on HIV and AIDS in Herat hospital," Hashimi says.

"The presenter and Dr. Shohar talk for a few minutes, and then take calls from people who can ask any questions they want about HIV; how it is spread, how you can protect against it, how to get tested, and anything else they don't understand.

"It's been a big success, we always have more people calling in than we have time for, and it's a good way for people to share their worries and get some answers to their questions.

"You see, in Afghan society we don't really talk about these things, so people don't really have anywhere to ask their questions, so we have tried to provide a forum for this and use it for education at the same time."

by Emma Pomfret and Tabitha Ross, Christian Aid

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