January 14, 2009 / 5:14 PM / in 10 years

First Afghan woman mayor says women's rights worsened

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s first woman mayor is determined to improve one of the country’s newest and poorest provinces, but she is concerned women’s rights in the former Taliban state are getting worse.

“I was very happy to get this job, especially being the first woman to be a mayor in Afghanistan, but there are some men who think a woman couldn’t do this job,” Azra Jafari told Reuters.

“Unfortunately, Afghan society has not yet become a society which can accept that women are able to do this job, like any other person.”

Jafari is just two weeks into her new post.

About twice a month, she commutes between the capital Kabul and the town of Nili in Dai Kundi province, where she has set up a mayoral office in a rented house, with her four-year old daughter in tow. Her husband lives and works in Kabul.

Jafari’s commute between Kabul and Nili is dangerous, taking her two days by road, and crossing the insecure province of Maidan Wardak, where extra U.S. troops are being deployed to stem the Taliban’s growing influence on the outskirts of Kabul.

“I face the same risks that any other woman or government employee faces, but this problem should not stop you from doing your job. Danger is everywhere,” 30-year old Jafari said.

Under the Taliban, toppled by U.S.-led and Afghan forces in 2001, women were banned from school and the workplace, many women, such as Jafari, moved to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran for education or work.

Jafari worked as a teacher and at welfare rights organisations before being appointed mayor in a male-dominated society which was under the tight grip of the Taliban’s ultra-orthodox Islamist rule only eight years ago.

But she laments the lack of women’s progress since that time and feels the situation of women in Afghanistan during the transition government of 2002 to 2004, before parliamentary elections took place, was much better.

“Unfortunately, day by day, the position of women fades ... We had three or four women ministers during the interim government period, now we have one.”

“President Karzai himself wants to see women progress and wants to seem them strengthen as part of a democracy, but Afghanistan is a male-dominated society,” Jafari said.

Jafari said she has met many of Dai Kundi’s citizens and hopes she can fulfil their demands but does not want her appointment to be defined by her gender.

“I don’t want to say that I can do this job because I am a woman, I want to say that I can do this job because I am a good citizen and I am someone who believes she can be a good mayor and can help the people of Dai Kundi.”

SAFE BUT POOR

Dai Kundi, which was established five years ago, is a safe province, cushioned by mountains, which buffer its borders from the insurgency taking hold in surrounding provinces.

But Dai Kundi’s safety is also its downfall, Jafari says.

“Areas where there is insecurity, international aid, development, military presence, gets most of the money ... but unfortunately this money does not reach Dai Kundi,” Jafari said.

There are no NATO-led or U.S. troops in Dai Kundi, because there is no Taliban there to fight off. The most dangerous area is Gilzai, a disputed district claimed by Uruzgan province, which borders Dai Kundi to the south.

“Dai Kundi is a province that needs every type of help available, international organisations need to help us too. We need roads, schools, libraries, employment,” Jafari said.

“My town needs roads, it needs engineers and it needs construction. We need to get on with this work.”

Editing by Valerie Lee

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