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Women’s net café is small victory for Afghan equality

Evening Standard, 16 May 2012

This is an excellent example: it allows Afghan women, often marginalised in their own country, to connect with the world.

When the doors open at 8am, Kamila Hosaini is ready and waiting to log on to one of 15 laptops at Afghanistan’s first women-only internet café.

She comes to the centre daily to Facebook and email friends and do online research for university. Before the centre opened in March, she would visit a mixed internet café in Kabul once a month.

These are not generally women-friendly places, being frequented mainly by underemployed men sitting around watching porn and harassing female customers.

“Now it’s just women here, I don’t feel at all uncomfortable,” Ms Hosaini said.

The café is the idea of Afghan nonprofit organisation Young Women for Change. Operating on a tiny budget, the team of volunteers favours projects that have maximum impact for minimum cost. This is an excellent example: it allows Afghan women, often marginalised in their own country, to connect with the world.

Rather unusually, of the 45 or so members of YWC, a third are young men. Male women’s rights advocates are not a common breed in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the group’s female founders, Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary, realised early on that it was more effective to get male volunteers to approach other men about women’s rights rather than females.

Even so, one of the men, 22-year-old Tayeb Khan, said he keeps his volunteer work secret from his family for fear of ridicule. The commitment from the men offers a spark of optimism in a country where activists are increasingly concerned that the advances women have achieved over the past decade since the fall of the Taliban — in health, in education and in the workplace — will be reversed after the end of 2014, when international troops withdraw.

Campaigners also fear that President Hamid Karzai will make concessions to the country’s powerful conservative and religious communities as he seeks to negotiate with the Taliban. Despite gains made so far in the battle for women’s rights, this is a country where domestic violence remains rampant and girls can be imprisoned for running away from abusive relationships.

Human Rights Watch says that more than half of all girls do not attend school, and an Afghan woman dies every two hours because of pregnancy-related causes.

Mr Karzai’s stance on equality issues has wavered during his presidency. In 2004, he signed a new constitution guaranteeing women equal rights and, in 2009, the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women criminalised a range of abuses including child marriage and forced prostitution.

But in March he decided to publicly endorse a religious council statement saying that women are secondary to men, should not travel without a male chaperone, and should not mix with men while working or studying. This hugely upset human rights workers.

“The most frightening thought is that, terrible as the situation still is for women, we may already be going backwards again,” said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

She added: “Without international aid for schools, clinics, shelters, legal services and rights’ advocacy, the next generation of Afghan women will be struggling merely for survival, let alone struggling for their rights.”

And by then, the male advocates may be not just a rare breed but an extinct one.

Evening Standard article