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Monday, 28 June 1999
Page: 7651

Ms PLIBERSEK (10:27 PM) —I rise tonight to speak about the very tragic and serious situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. Historically they have been discriminated against, but since 1992 their status has deteriorated rapidly. The situation has worsened significantly since the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996 and the implementation of severe social strictures. Women were immediately forbidden to work outside the home and were denied access to health and education. This is despite their involvement with the Taliban militia in fighting the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. US Senator Barbara Boxer said to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee this year:

Today, under Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan cannot work outside the home, attend school, or even wear shoes that make a noise when they walk. They must wear a head-to-toe covering called a burga. Parents cannot teach their daughters to read, or take their little girls to male doctors. Women have been stoned to death, beaten, and otherwise abused for `breaking' these harsh laws.

She continued:

This intolerable treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan has continued despite repeated international requests that the Taliban restore their rights. We cannot in good conscience watch in silence what is happening in Afghanistan. Afghan women will continue to suffer at the hand of the Taliban unless the rest of the world presses for change.

Reports from within Afghanistan and from refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan are alarming. I should just say that it is estimated that over a million people are living in these refugee camps in Pakistan. Many women and girls are suffering chronic depression and anxiety. Some are managing to escape to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, while others are choosing a more tragic and permanent form of escape in suicide. There are credible reports of women swallowing detergent or pesticide, or even setting fire to themselves. The USIA Washington File said:

Womens and girls access to medical services and hospitals have been drastically reduced. Although they are allowed to receive emergency care in all Kabul hospitals and non emergency care in a few, women have died because male doctors were not allowed to treat them. Many of them suffered easily treatable ailments. The lack of ready access to medical facilities that do exist is further impacted by shortages of medicine and equipment.

Of course, if young girls are not allowed to learn to read, let alone study further, the next generation of women doctors is certainly in doubt. As well as the restriction on access to medical services, women's health is affected by the poverty enforced on them by loss of income. Tens of thousands of war widows are the sole providers in their families and, when they are not able to work, they are forced to beg to feed themselves and their children. Both widows and their children are suffering malnutrition and some have starved to death.

The Taliban has restricted education for girls, particularly in Kabul. Girls over eight years of age cannot attend formal schools and parents are forbidden to teach daughters to read at home. For some of the women who fled Afghanistan there was the possibility of continuing an education in refugee universities in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar. Unfortunately, in August 1998 the Pakistani government shut down these universities, alleging that they were operating illegally. These schools taught more than 1,000 female students in separate buildings. The Pakistani government claimed that the education offered was substandard and was business oriented. However, human rights activists claim the closures were part of a joint campaign on the part of the Pakistani government and its Taliban allies to force the refugees to return to Afghanistan. Pakistan wants to access the lucrative trade route through Afghanistan to Central Asia and, as a result, human rights officials claim, the Taliban have virtually been given a free hand to root out opposition within the refugee community.

I would like to conclude by saying that the United States government has condemned Taliban policies publicly. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, during her visit to a refugee camp in Pakistan, described the Taliban treatment of women as `despicable'. She said:

We are opposed to their approach to human rights, to their despicable treatment of women and children, and their lack of respect for human dignity, in a way more reminiscent of the past than the future.

I believe that we here in Australia and people throughout the international community cannot allow these terrible crimes against women and girls to continue with impunity. We must do everything within our power to stop what is happening to women in Afghanistan. (Time expired)