Situation in Afghanistan: Discussion.

Both Houses are sitting at present and some of our members are at a vote in the Seanad. They had to return to that House but, no doubt, they will be back down again.

It is a great honour to welcome Dr. Shinkai Karokhail, MP, from the Afghan National Assembly. Dr. Karokhail is accompanied by John Moffet, Christian Aid's head of programmes and by Serena Di Matteo, country manager, Christian Aid Afghanistan. Dr. Karokhail is the founding member of AWEC, Afghan Women's Educational Centre. She has been an Afghan MP since 2006 and is the chairwoman of the Afghan women parliamentarians and women's rights network. She was born in Kabul and trained as a medical doctor there. She has worked with street children and vulnerable women. As a parliamentarian, she has lobbied President Karzai to demand senior roles for women in the Afghan Government, to promote education for girls and spoken out to condemn violence against women in the home. Dr. Karokhail was an advocate for the review of the anti-women Shia legislation in 2009. In recent days, Dr. Karokhail took part in an international conference in London on the future of Afghanistan.

There seems to be a growing consensus among the international community of a need to re-assess the international engagement and approach to Afghanistan. It is clear that the aim must be to facilitate a speedy transition to Afghan leadership in the security, development and governance sectors. Since 2005, Ireland has allocated almost €22 million in aid assistance to Afghanistan. In addition, a new commitment had been made to provide additional funding of more than €20 million during the next three years. Despite this and efforts by other members of the international community, Afghanistan remains in an uncertain position with Government and civil society structures weakened by widespread extreme poverty and decades of conflict.

The committee is keen to hear Dr. Karokhail's views on how best to support the people and Government of Afghanistan to build a secure and just society and whether, in her view, the London conference will help the country's plight. Perhaps Dr. Karokhail will offer her views on the implications for the rights of women in Afghanistan should the international community now support the return to power of elements of the Taliban. Before we commence I advise the deputation that, whereas Members of the Houses enjoy absolute privilege in respect of utterances made in committee, witnesses do not enjoy absolute privilege. Accordingly, caution should be exercised, especially with regard to references of a personal nature. I now invite Dr. Shinkai Karokhail to address the committee. Following this I will invite questions from Senators and Deputies.

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

I thank the Chairman for his introduction. I am very honoured to be here. I am here on behalf of my people. Recently, we held a conference regarding how to help Afghanistan and its people. It was a good opportunity and, at last, Afghans are in a position to set their priorities and to ask the international community where they need help and where we, the Afghans, seek help from them.

As an Afghan woman living in my country I am aware of the views of the international community. There is a possibility it may become disappointed too soon or take the view that nothing has changed or will change, that it is tired and losing resources, that it is wasting its time because nothing will change and that it might be better to leave the Afghans alone and the way they were living. This is not a correct perception. Many changes have taken place in Afghanistan and good progress has been made. I remember ten years ago when our six year old could not go to school, but today there are 68 women in the Parliament. One such woman represents the country before the committee in Dublin today, which is great progress. We have a constitution that gives us equal rights and which women can use as a tool for progress and participation.

Many good things have happened but, unfortunately, the media never focuses on these issues and always dwells on the negative things that have taken place. We have reached a point at which we can achieve progress now and we will all achieve it together not only to secure Afghanistan, but also to secure the entire world. I do not believe it is simply a matter for Afghanistan now. Our security and safety is connected with that of the entire world.

Much is taking place and there is a good deal of interference. There is also al-Qaeda behind us. It is still trying to occupy a specific territory which borders the entire world. It keeps its eyes on Afghanistan and seeks to get it back under control and rule it. We should not let it come back. I am here to tell the world that we must be patient. We need and expect the international community to show a long-term commitment towards Afghanistan. We will achieve our aims and we will not lose, but we must be very strategic and patient.

I refer to how the international community can help Afghanistan. The international community should definitely support the Government of Afghanistan. We cannot undermine it. If there is stronger government, we will definitely achieve our goal soon. There are many problems in our Government. A good deal of corruption remains in the country and the presence of warlords in the country influences the entire system. They try to prevent people from progressing based on merit. They try to bring in their own people but they were never made to face justice to pay for what they had done to the people of Afghanistan. They tried to influence the system and keep themselves alive. That is why we are struggling to remove them and put the foundations in place for a democratic system.

We must bring more women into the system. One of the causes of corruption is the lack of a female presence. If more women become involved, things will change.

Because of the security situation, everyone focuses on the military issue, on how to strengthen security. That is essential for development work but the priority should be to strengthen the Afghan security system, not to send more troops to Afghanistan. As a woman, I prefer the soldiers currently in Afghanistan from the international community because their presence guarantees my movement as a woman involved in politics. However, I would still prefer if the international community supported the security system of Afghanistan and equipped and trained those involved in terms of both quantity and quality.

A lot of attention is focused on security issues but most aid is sent to the using soldiers. I do not like this because if aid is sent by the military, it puts it at risk. Most of the infrastructure for the delivery of aid is easily targeted by anti-government elements. If aid was sent through non-governmental organisations, including local NGOs, or the Government of Afghanistan and the local community, it would be a secure investment. However, aid provision is being militarised and the focus is on security, while the development side is ignored. We cannot achieve success through military intervention alone; it must also be achieved through development work.

I am regularly asked what I think of the Taliban. My reply is that we cannot buy someone at the market but if the region and the community are developed, foot soldiers can be brought back but not their main leaders who were produced by others for a different cause. The people involved simply want to survive, they only joined the Taliban in order that they could feed their children. If development work is fostered, people will join us and the power of the Taliban will be reduced.

The priority should be meeting the needs of the people. We should pass this money to local NGOs. Most of the organisations working in Afghanistan are divided according to gender. They are doing excellent work but women better understand women's issues, with entire projects dedicated to women. We make up nearly half of the population and have many problems. It is the only country in the world in which there are fewer women than men, even though we have lost so many men in three decades of war. This is because 60% of women marry at an age younger than 16 years and there are many deaths due to unsafe pregnancy and delivery. It is shocking; it is like a silent tsunami but no one thinks about it. Afghanistan has the second highest mortality rate in the world.

Only around 12% of women are literate, another major problem. No one thinks about how we can invest in girls' and women's education. Over 80% of my people practise customary law which always victimised women in solving disputes. Almost 90% of women are dependent on men for an income, making their lives more miserable. Around 90% of women also suffer some form of violence. There are many needs. However, whenever people ask about more investment in women's participation, the priority is our security. The country ratified Resolution 1325 but we are still not a part of peace negotiations.

How can we secure the support of the Irish Government and, through it, the European Union for the people and Government of Afghanistan? Representing an NGO which works for women's issues, the Afghan Women's Educational Centre, in partnership with Christian Aid, an NGO which receives funding from the Irish Government, I hope we will get increased funding and provide more education and awareness programmes for Afghan women. Without the participation of women, we cannot reach proper development goals and achieve sustainable peace and security. For sure, we would like the support of the people of Ireland in trying to reach this goal.

I like the way Dr. Karokhail used the words "for sure"; that is something we say in Ireland, that women will make things better, that they will make the difference. That is the underlying message of the presentation because we have seen in Ireland where women involved in NGOs and local groups build democracy. Women have a huge part to play.

I welcome Dr. Karokhail. It was interesting to hear what she had to say.

Afghanistan has been a troubled country in a troubled region for many years. Looking at what is happening there from a distance, it appears that in recent weeks the security situation in Kabul has deteriorated, with devastating incidents taking place. Some of the information we receive suggests outside Kabul the government has limited power and that the Taliban is in control in some regions or on the front line in confrontations with the international or Afghan forces.

Development presents a huge challenge in the country. As such there is a need for development aid to be used correctly. In the absence of stability and security, there is a great difficulty in projects proceeding in various areas. As I understand Dr. Karokhail's concerns, perhaps she will expand on that aspect. To what extent has the Taliban been successful in disrupting development projects, putting them under threat or creating an environment in which it is impossible for progress to be made?

With regard to the recent presidential elections, there were great concerns about how the elections had proceeded, with question marks against the legitimacy of President Karzai's current term. What is the delegation's view on how democracy is developing in Afghanistan? In its paper it mentioned that one of the challenges which remains is corruption and difficulties in the area of political institutions. Perhaps the delegation might say something about that.

In the context of the position of women in Afghanistan, action has been taken in recent years by some of the more extreme groups there, including the Taliban, to prevent women from having an education. Women and schools have been targeted. To what extent is that still a problem today in particular parts of Afghanistan? Is the situation in Kabul dramatically different or better than in the rest of the country or is that a presentation we get in Europe which is inaccurate and untrue?

In the recent conference which was held there was a discussion on seducing the Taliban, or a section of those involved in it, back into government with a view to bringing the conflict to an end. What concerns does the delegation have about that? Is it realistic that it again involves itself in the government of Afghanistan? What threats does that pose to the well-being of women as individuals, to their human rights, their capacity to access education and those in the position of Dr. Shinkai Karokhail, who is a medical practitioner? Is it a practical and beneficial way to try to bring some level of conflict to an end or are countries in the international community involved in the conflict trying to find a way of getting out of it? Is the delegation concerned that in two or three years' time Afghanistan could be ruled by the Taliban again and that the current institutions may collapse? I apologise for asking so many questions.

We will take a number of questions together.

I also welcome Dr. Shinkai Karokhail and the two delegates from Christian Aid, which is to be applauded for its collaboration and partnership. A very small Irish NGO based in Wexford has been operating for some time. An old man who has been in Afghanistan for a very long time briefed members of the committee on a previous occasion on conditions in Afghanistan. Anything I have to say is calculated to be of some assistance. The man to which I refer stressed the great difficulties in travelling to remote regions, to which he often travelled on horseback, sometimes with different degrees of safety. Terrain difficulties are very often not understood in Ireland and the European Union. The media which is presented to us on conditions in Afghanistan is very often solely confined to conditions in Kabul. In two years I have never seen a programme which presented the sheer physical difficulties and beauty of Afghanistan. Significant differences arise from remoteness and the rural dispersion of the population. It is a minor point. Was any significant progress made in terms of strengthening civil society at the London conference? I refer in particular to gender-based organisations, including the significant organisation which Dr. Karokhail runs. I wish her well. It is important that she is able to sustain her efforts for a such a long and challenging haul.

I thought about this issue in regard to the question of non-militarised aid. There is militarised aid. I can see how giving a privileged position to NGOs working on women's rights is an immensely practical position and it would have my support because it establishes an obvious distance between the use of aid to win hearts and minds for a military project. Christian Aid will have a position on the issue, as will other NGOs. The hearts and minds programmes are disastrous for aid projects in the long term. Many people think they are new but they are not; they were used as disastrous policies as far back as Vietnam.

They were used to deal with the famine here.

They were used here and also in Vietnam in more recent times. They were disastrous. They create difficulties in that they exacerbate all the cultural difficulties as, very often, they lodge a version of what is appropriate by way of injected aid in a culturally hostile fashion. I note some of the briefing papers we received refer to the very small decline in opium production and so forth. The slash and burn approach to the high dependence of the rural economy on poppy production will be as disastrous in Afghanistan as it was in Latin American. Programmes for rural development and women's education and participation are important. The figures which the delegation gave us on the vulnerability of young women should be front line issues for the international community. I agree with it entirely.

The coverage of Afghanistan in Western, European and Irish media concerns what President Karzai is doing, if his Government will be accepted and if things are calm in Kabul. After the arrival of troops from the United States there was a suggestion from Hillary Clinton that everything had changed from the following day regarding the position of women. Sadly, as we see from the real pictures on the rare occasions we get them, the position of women has not changed. The delegation provided an agenda of the work which remains to be done regarding the establishment of rights.

Does the Government propose to ratify the international covenants on the optional protocol to the two basic covenants on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights? If it did it would give an automatic right to minorities to access the United Nations committee monitoring the two covenants. It would also be a practical issue for people to relate, not just to states and other NGOs, but directly to the Irish Human Rights Commission and to the network of centres of human rights that exist in Europe, which should be able to discuss and be of some assistance in exchanging and absorbing information.

The delegation referred to the militarisation of aid, and where people resiled from that in other circumstances was where an agreement was made as to the separation of the security route from the aid. In other words, where this issue has arisen before in other countries there has been a code of practice whereby secure routes have been established and responsibility taken by military forces for them, but the autonomy of the delivery of the aid is respected in a code of practice. There is a great deal of information on that. It is worse if that does not happen and the aid is put behind a banner of winning hearts and minds for the occupying forces because that is, in fact, putting oil on the flames of insurgency and it will be very destructive.

The gentleman the Deputy mentioned is Mr. Terence O'Malley who is the founder of a small Irish NGO called SAFE which runs small educational programmes for women, particularly in Afghanistan. He appeared before the committee and was accompanied by Ms Mary Akrami who spoke very passionately on many of the issues you raised here. It gave us some insight into the views of women. He has stayed with it for a very long time.

I thank Dr. Shinkai Karokhail for enlightening the committee, particularly on the position of women in Afghanistan. I am absolutely horrified to see in the slides that more than 90% of women suffer domestic violence. That is an unbelievable figure and obviously there is a need for change.

Dr. Karokhail said that 80% of the population abide by customary law. Can she give the committee some examples of how women are disadvantaged by the use of customary law? What efforts are being made to develop laws based on the concept of human rights that is prevalent in the Western world, particularly based on gender equality? Are steps being taken to try to develop laws on the basis? That is the major issue, as mentioned by Dr. Karokhail, that we have to know more about and try to influence change in regard to those matters.

There are two areas that are of interest. Warlords are mentioned. What influence do they have in society in Afghanistan? When I think of the warlords I think of the whole issue of drugs in Afghanistan, the base for the poppies and so on. What is the position in regard to drugs in Afghanistan and how is it being addressed?

I remember that about 30 years ago Afghanistan was a different place because Irish people used to go there and do business. It was developing along a path that it could well be in a position now where it would be the tiger of that area and could have developed into a very effective economy where all the people would be living in peace and would have a good quality of life. It is terrible the way things change over time. We have seen that happen in so many different countries.

I wish Dr. Karokhail every success. I appreciate she is taking a very brave step in putting herself forward as a spokesperson, as an advocate, for women's rights in Afghanistan. It is a very dangerous position that she is taking. I admire her courage. She can be assured that we will do anything we possibly can to help and advance the positions she is taking.

In addition to more than 90% of women experiencing domestic violence, fewer than 20% of women are literate. That is an indication of the opportunity for development.

I also welcome our guests and, in particular, I salute the courage and integrity of Dr. Shinkai Karokhail. Deputy Shatter referred to Afghanistan as a troubled region and I think he is right but that word could be taken in a number of different ways. Aghanistan has been troubled by the intervention of international powers for a number of centuries and it was a graveyard for the British for a very long time. There was the Russian intervention, then the Americans supporting the most reactionary forces, some of which have come back to bite them quite severely. In a sense, the rest of the world owes an apology to Afghanistan, a very beautiful country, that has been troubled by outside interference. I would have much preferred if that interference had been moral and persuasive rather than military, and rather than a situation where great powers fought their wars in a proxy manner to the great disadvantage and destruction of the people and the region of Afghanistan.

I would like to ask a couple of questions. When the Taliban was in control we consistently heard horror stories, for example, stories of women being prevented from having access to life-saving treatments for cancer because the medical operatives who were giving this were men and this was regarded as forbidden. Women, apparently, lost their lives as a result of the withdrawal of medical treatment when the Taliban arrived. What is the possibility, from cynical political and military motivation, of agreement being reached to reintroduce the Taliban into the mainstream? I cannot use the word "secure". How can women's rights be secured in that situation? How can they be achieved because the starting point, despite the enormous courage of people such as Dr. Karokhail, is regrettably low in Afghanistan?

If the Taliban was re-introduced there is a possibility that there might be a further aggression. What, if any, is the chance of advances in access to education and proper health care? It is a horrifying statistic that so many women die in childbirth where the maternity levels are among the highest in the world. The Chairman referred to a 20% rate of literacy. I recall hearing Dr. Karokhail saying five minutes ago that there was 12% literacy among women. That is a very low level. I have read with great interest the report of the United Nations assistance mission in Afghanistan which is dedicated to the memory of a woman called Sitara Achakzai. She was shot dead after having given evidence to this group. There were police officers, politicians and people who put themselves in the firing line, so to speak, as Dr. Karokhail has.

I remember hearing on the BBC World Service of a young woman who had been viciously raped. With great courage she managed to get a prosecution against the men involved. President Karzai pardoned them. That is extraordinary behaviour. It is reprehensible behaviour and calls into question the moral authority of President Karzai. How is the Government functioning at the moment to the extent that it is in Kabul, because we witnessed widespread fraud during the election which was verified internationally?

Deputy Ardagh asked about the warlords and so on. The first slate of Ministers put before the Parliament by President Karzai was mutilated. The Parliament rejected the vast majority of them. Out of the second slate, only seven were accepted. The Government is functioning with 14 Ministers where it should have a much more considerable number. How efficiently is the Government functioning and how efficiently can it function?

My final question is a cultural issue. It is often regarded as impertinent for people in countries like Ireland to condemn cultural practices. One has to be very sensitive. There is a sense of outrage which is shared by courageous people like Dr. Karokhail at the situation regarding rape which I have already stated is very widespread. It goes unreported and very often the victims are accused subsequently of having collaborated in an adulterous sexual relationship. Having complained of rape they can then become double victims. There is also the question of honour being insulted by this kind of sexual matter and so on, which is widespread.

The optimistic aspect from my point of view is that there are still people of great dignity, integrity and courage, such as Dr. Karokhail, in Afghanistan. I hope we can support her at least morally in whatever way we can do that. If there are ways to do that Dr. Karokhail might indicate them but to use Deputy Shatter's word, Afghanistan is still a troubled country.

I welcome Dr. Karokhail and thank her for her presentation. On the position of women, what improvements have taken place in the ten years since 2001 in terms of their role in public life and violence in the home, which must be a matter of great concern to all of us? Has there been any improvement in that situation?

Afghanistan has one of the highest levels of maternal mortality in the world. Has there been any improvements in women's health? On the question of the insurgency and the violence across the border with Pakistan, how does Dr. Karokhail see that being addressed? The problem of narcotics is a major question not just for Afghanistan but for the entire world because many of the narcotics that find their way to Europe, and to Ireland, originate in Afghanistan. What further role does Dr. Karokhail believe Ireland and the European Union can play in addressing the challenges she has outlined?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to meet with Dr. Karokhail. I apologise for my late arrival but I had to attend the other Chamber.

I, too, am touched by Dr. Karokhail's bravery, particularly during the reign of the Taliban. We have all seen images on television and heard radio reports of the devastation of families and infrastructure and how the Taliban destroyed peace in that country yet Dr. Karokhail stood alone to take them on. That is some achievement. We need more people like Dr. Karokhail.

Having read Dr. Karokhail's presentation it is obvious huge challenges remain. She referred to the weak parliament, the importance of infrastructure and the number of women in non-governmental organisations who help protect women against violence or protect them in a general way.

On the importance of education, it must be a huge struggle for Dr. Karokhail to overcome the weaknesses that still exist. What opposition is she facing from others in her efforts to try to help the women and the street children? How is she making headway? Are there many women like her in Afghanistan? I know Dr. Karokhail has given hope and is motivating others but she is up against it, so to speak. There is huge opposition to these moves because the Taliban regime appears to be still very much in place. I would like Dr. Karokhail's views on that.

Dr. Karokhail might like to respond, at least in general terms, to the various points raised by members.

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

I thank the members for their questions. I hope I got them all because my English is not very good. I will try my best to properly express myself and answer the questions. If I miss one I ask the member to ask me to give a response.

I will start by discussing the election. As a woman I was very happy about the election but women were worried that my government might come up with an excuse and not go for election. It was a good foundation to put in place because it meant that even in the worst security circumstances we had to have an election, and anybody who wanted to be the next president had to go through an election. It was a good start but we knew some fraud would happen in the areas which were not properly secured and where there were no observers. I can tell the committee that this fraud was not only perpetrated by those who supported President Karzai but supporters of all of the other candidates. Everybody tried their best to get more votes during this election. We should not blame only Karzai. Everybody was involved in that fraud but there was a great deal of propaganda, which meant there was not justice for the people of Afghanistan. It was not fair. It reduced the importance of such a process because Afghans are not educated enough to know how to cast their vote and in the end we were losing their trust. They were being told not to vote the next time. That kind of behaviour will definitely have an effect on any future election, which may end up being a two horse parliamentary election.

If the people of Afghanistan had more choice they would not have voted for Karzai but the second runner, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, was a part of the Northern Alliance. People there had already been neglected by the people of Afghanistan. They were responsible for the civil war in south Kabul. In Kabul province we lost approximately 100,000 people, which is a huge number. Half of the city was destroyed by Ahmad Shah Masood or other war lords. Abdullah was a part of that group and that is why the people were not happy. They chose between the worst and the bad; the bad was Karzai and the worst was Abdullah. That is why the people wanted to vote for Karzai. We had no other option. That is why he was the winner.

We felt that at least with a new government a woman could get a chance to be a part of a new government and in our dealings with the top candidates — Dr. Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Karzai — we told them that if they won we wanted them to bring more women into the system including more ministers, deputy ministers and diplomats. We said women should be included at a decision making level, otherwise, we would not vote. An argument happened over that and that is why Karzai was pressed to introduce three women. Unfortunately, we do not have a very strong parliament. We do not have the right people in parliament. We have war lords, the extremists and the commanders which is why the two women did not win. They had a member of the civil society; they were introduced by civil society. They were introduced by a women's group. They had master's degrees and good work experience. They were strong women and knew what to do but they did not get the votes because nobody supported them. Even the women were jealous of them. They supported the war lords and they were advised not to work for these two women. The third woman won because her husband was an ex-commander who was killed in the war. They thought she was the right person to vote for. To them a strong woman with a good experience was not important, especially in the civil society. People like some of the commanders or extremists were against them. They called us westernised people with a different mentality. That is why they did not win.

We also have a problem inside the parliament. I mentioned that war lords have influence. When Karzai won, each war lord group went by the name of ethnic group, tribal group, political party and ex-commanders and told him they wanted respect and bargained for two or three ministries. They tried to bring their people with them, so Karzai is in a bad position. On the one side the international community is pressurising him and, on the other, these people are pressurising him, and the Taliban in our neighbouring country is creating a security problem. So in such a bad situation he is sometimes obliged to deal with them, and he should do so. That is the situation and that is why there is more corruption. People who are introduced by warlords are definitely not loyal to the system, they are loyal to the persons or group which brought them. That is why there is a feedback of more corruption.

As regards the development conference, we are happy that the Afghan Government finally tried to establish its priorities based on the previous Afghanistan national development strategy. They want to portray it as needing more help. I am very happy that finally my country realises that we must invest more in agriculture. Over 60% of people are involved in agriculture, but we must beg Pakistan, India or the World Food Programme to get a single sack of wheat in order to feed ourselves. That is why I am happy if we start to work on developing agriculture and irrigation systems in order to feed our people. We should not be obliged to source food from abroad.

As regards customary laws, 70% of people live in rural areas. Sometimes it is difficult for them to get transport to reach local government offices or deliver a letter of complaint to seek justice. It is time-consuming and in addition it may involve bribery. Therefore, they depend on the local Shura council, comprising the few people who have influence. People can contact them with their problems in order to get them solved. Local elders who know the traditional norms will act to solve such problems. For example, the law states that a fine should be paid or a prison term served by a person who commits a specific crime. We have the same thing in the traditional Afghan system. Some cases can be solved through the local Shura, such as irrigation and other issues.

Among the Pashtun people, however, if a woman runs away with somebody she loves — although it is difficult to get a chance to run away — the man with whom she elopes must give back a woman or women to the girl's family. If someone is killed, the victim's family must be given something in recompense. It may involve a marriage to a male member of the family. Women are not allowed to be members of the Shura council, yet somebody is making decisions on our behalf, and we must go along with that. Some 90% of people, or more, live like that. A brother may not even allow his sister to attend school. If one is not allowed to go to school, that is a form of violence. That is why the number of illiterate people is so high in the country.

Afghanistan has many requirements because the resources are very limited. I am not saying that nothing has been done to provide health services, but maternity care is not a priority for the Ministry of Public Health. Because we have a high infant mortality rate, we recently asked President Karzai to appoint a woman as Minister of Public Health. He finally did so, but unfortunately she did not receive a vote of confidence in Parliament. We want people to understand the need for investment in this area. Afghanistan is the only country in the region where a woman's life expectancy is lower than a man's.

I am not sure how the UK Government is dealing with the issue of drugs in Afghanistan. There are doubts over why we cannot reduce drug cultivation in a region controlled by British troops. Their presence should lead to a reduction in drug cultivation, but we do not know what is going on in this regard. We cannot reduce poppy cultivation even though 90% of it occurs in a province where British troops are based.

Is Dr. Karokhail implying something else concerning the British? Why are they not dealing with the drug problem there?

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

That is what we are asking. They have more than 20,000 troops in such a small province.

It should be possible to do something.

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

It would be easy. One of the people who is trying to eliminate the opium plants told me that he had spoken with a British representative who said "Tomorrow we have to cut". This was where they said they would come, but the plan was somewhere else where there was no opium war. His question, however, was why we were not allowed to cut this. That is the question. As a woman, I am really confused as to why it is not happening. If we have investment in agriculture, farmers will focus on crops other than opium. Afghanistan is a Muslim country and people will not cultivate an opium business if the Islamic issue is publicised. Nobody is talking about that, however, which makes me question the matter.

As regards the possibility of the Taliban joining the Afghan Government, at the London conference we women raised our voices in the media stating that nobody should compromise on our basic rights. I do not want to revert to my previous life. I do not want to be confined to the house. During the period of Taliban rule, I came to live in Kabul. On one occasion I went out to buy groceries and, even though I wore a burkha, my two year old son had to accompany me because he is my mahram or male company to attend the market. He was like my guardian or bodyguard. It is a shame that I was not allowed to go by myself. I had to be accompanied by my two year old son because he is a male. That was the situation, but now I can travel without my son. I am in Dublin without male company.

We have fear in our hearts about what will happen if the international community thinks the Taliban can be integrated into the system. Will the women's quota in Parliament be eliminated? Will the doors of the Ministry of Women's Affairs be closed? Will women be removed from positions of influence? That would not be justice for Afghan women. Will they say that women can remain working as doctors and teachers? Will they say that women can be educated, but not sit in Parliament? I hope there will be no compromise on these issues because it would be unacceptable. Otherwise we should all leave the country and go elsewhere.

Fighting for women's rights is not easy, especially as Afghanistan is a very traditional country. Apart from being Muslim, they are very traditional and totally anti-women's rights. They cannot accept a strong role for women. They try to create problems in this regard under Shia law, which is based on Islamic issues. When I stood against that law and raised my voice through the international media, President Karzai was finally obliged to review the matter and introduce positive amendments. It is not an easy matter and we face many challenges. We really need support and protection.

I was asked about my expectations, which involve a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. In addition, I want the make the Government accountable because if one is paying money to the Government one should ask where the money is going. How much of this aid went towards dealing with women's issues, which are also important? Also, some of the money allocated through non-governmental organisations should go towards women's projects and not just general projects in Afghanistan. I hope I have answered all the questions. I thank the members for being patient.

Dr. Karokhail has done extremely well. Does Ms Di Matteo wish to make a brief comment?

Ms Serena Di Matteo

If I may add to what Dr. Karokhail said, I thank the committee for inviting us here again. I am based in Afghanistan, between Kabul and Herat. Before joining Christian Aid I worked in Afghanistan with the United Nations. Already, I have been there four years. We work closely with the Afghan Government, members of the parliament such as Dr. Karokhail, institutions and civil society organisations.

We have experience of being in Afghanistan for three decades over three regimes and we can say that the way we are proceeding is not a way forward. In eight years Afghanistan has not progressed enough. In recent weeks, and with the presence of Dr. Karokhail, we wanted to raise our voices and tell all those in the international community, the donors, that there is no quick fix in Afghanistan. As Deputy Higgins said, we cannot win the hearts and minds of people. We must look at long-term sustainable development, examine the root causes of poverty and try to tackle them.

In regard to the question of the drugs, little progress is being made. President Karzai once stated: "I cannot let my people starve". We must offer strong support in terms of people's livelihood and encourage them to abandon the cultivation of poppy for alternative crops. That might be an option.

On the militarisation of aid, it is important for us to re-balance in terms of how the aid is spent. Military organisational institutions like the provincial reconstruction teams, the PRTs, often lack the capacity to manage development effectively and the results of that can be seen in schools in Kapisa province, for example, which were found to have been constructed with serious design flaws.

Also, in terms of cultural sensitivity, latrines empty just above a stream that the community use as a water resource. As NGOs we have our shortfalls but working with communities we have an acceptance and a knowledge of rural areas that is an added value in trying to do the best to meet needs.

For us, military engagement is essential but we must also consider a more comprehensive strategic approach in refocusing more on development. The members have seen the figures. Since 2001, the United States has spent almost $300 billion on military operations and what has gone to development since 2001 has been probably less than 10%. It is important to have the committee's support in that regard. We believe the US strategy has been a missed opportunity to take a more holistic approach.

We hope the European Union and Ireland, as a member of the European Union, can strongly advocate with other donors and other governments on the importance of development and of a government which does not just ratify conventions but enforces them. Afghanistan has ratified a number of conventions which are only fine words. We have a number of laws which are only fine words. They are not applied or enforced. Outside of Kabul in particular, as Dr. Karokhail said, people are uneducated and illiterate. The formal justice system does not go beyond Kabul. At a sub-national level laws are not well known and are not applied.

The Government must start, with our support, to act on what we say because it took from the time of the Bonn Agreement until now to realise that processes were not working. This is probably the time to do things differently and to identify the gaps. It must not only set objectives and benchmarks but also measure and monitor how our strategies are progressing. The Government has a responsibility to be accountable to the Afghan men and women.

In that sense civil society organisations could play a major role. This is where we hope the Kabul conference that will follow the London conference will provide a broader space for civil society organisations to be included in this dialogue among different actors.

I apologise for briefly leaving the meeting. I had to keep an arrangement made before I knew about this meeting. There is one question I meant to ask Dr. Karokhail. If she has already answered it she need not answer it again because I will read the minutes of the meeting. What is the current position with regard to the personal status law that was being put in place that affected women?

I apologise also for leaving earlier.

If Dr. Karokhail has addressed that already I ask her not to repeat what she said. If she has not——

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

No. I did not answer about that. The personal status law brought about many amendments. Fifty changes came——

They were particularly to affect women, including the right of a husband to have sexual relations with his wife——

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

It is very much improved. Fifty changes were made to that law.

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

Two problems still exist but apart from that Government is obliged also to rectify those. For the first time there is a law on how to eliminate violence against women. This is the time for us to publicise that. It is not 100% improved but still much better.

It is much better than the original law that was published.

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

Exactly. Fifty changes were made, and I have to thank in particular theGuardian and The Independent newspapers, which published my interview on time while I was attending a heart conference. President Karzai came under the pressure of the international community and was forced to bring in changes. That is why the committee’s support will be excellent.

One point I forgot to mention about the presence of the Taliban. Some of the areas are captured for a few hours and then they leave. They are definitely disturbing the normal security measures or some development work but they are not the biggest obstacle. A small terrorist group could challenge a huge number of the soldiers but it does not mean they will win every time, but they are murdering everybody.

I thank Dr. Karokhail and Ms Di Matteo for attending today.

I thank the representatives.

The presentation was very informative and helpful to all of us. We wish you every success in the very difficult situation you are handling on the ground. I thank Christian Aid too for the work it is doing in Afghanistan, which is of enormous importance.

It is clear that the first action the international community must take is to listen to the views of the people and the leaders of Afghanistan. In that regard, I am grateful to the representatives for taking the time to address the committee today. There is a great advantage in hearing at first hand your views as an Afghan parliamentarian. You see how confusing it gets for parliamentarians here. There are so many committees and two Houses, and all going on at the same time.

You have given us your indication on what direction the international community and the people and Government of Afghanistan need to take to ensure a better future for all there, particularly for women. We greatly appreciate what you have explained the situation in that regard.

We wish you well. I understand that you are going to the reconciliation centre to meet the people there. I thank you again for coming.

Dr. Shinkai Karokhail

I thank the Chairman.

The joint committee adjourned at 1 p.m. until noon on Wednesday, 24 March 2010.