Friday, March 12, 2010

Afghanistan: Using Islam to help women

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - The Government of Afghanistan is tapping mullahs and religious elders to make people aware of the rights women are entitled to in accordance with Islamic Laws through a programme supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The national programme, which is being implemented by the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Women Affairs, is requiring mullahs and other Islamic leaders to raise awareness on the consequences of early marriage, forced marriage and gender-based violence. Participants also discuss inheritance issues, including a comparison between what Islamic Law says about a woman's right to inheritance and what happens in practice.

"In Afghanistan, when people are given instructions based on their religious values, they will easily listen and accept them," said Mawalwi Abdul Hanan, a participant. "We believe that by involving religious leaders such programmes will reduce domestic violence."

Afghanistan's population is almost entirely comprised of traditional communities, strictly adhering to their local cultures and customs. As a result, people often trust only their religious scholars and mullahs, who are respected as wise and honest community leaders that safeguard society's values.

Mullahs participating in the programme have begun to speak out about violence against women during Friday sermons in mosques. Their listeners, all men, are told about the negative implications of such actions as laid out by Islamic texts. The hope is that by involving men from the outset as agents of change, society's views toward the status of women will begin to shift.

The programme started in Balkh province in late 2009. Two hundred fifty Mullahs from five districts took part of a series of trainings, knowledge-building and participatory discussions on women's rights according to Islam.

"The programme is a very wise approach, particularly to rural areas," said Ahmaduddin Sahibi, Provincial Coordinator of UNDP/Gender Equality Project in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. "Governmental authorities are already proposing to replicate this initiative in other provinces in the future."

The UN is working with the Afghanistan government to address women's needs, a crucial element for the country's development. Recently, the government committed to fast tracking the increase of women's participation in the civil service at all levels to 30 per cent by 2013. Currently, only 22 per cent of all regular government employees are women and only nine per cent of these are at the decision-making level.

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