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Women bear the brunt of war

"While bombs and missiles don't differentiate between men and women, other aspects of war affect women and girls disproportionately," wrote Mary-Wynne Ashford and Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, authors of "The Impact of War on Women." (In "War and Public Health," B. S. Levy and V. W. Sidel, eds., Oxford University Press, 1997.)

Increased economic burdens. "War has always resulted in women dealing with the death or maiming of loved ones, the loss of a husband or father being particularly serious because of a woman's economic dependence on men," say Ashford and Huet-Vaughn.

Twenty-three years of fighting has killed so many Afghan men that women now make up 54 percent of the population. With no other recourse, many widows and their children survive by begging in the streets.

More work for women. Ashford and Huet-Vaughn point out that "In war zones, women continue to be responsible for procuring and preparing food and for caring for children, the elderly and the ill. Faced with food and fuel shortages, lack of electricity, shortages of medicine and lack of safe water, women suddenly face issues of survival every day. Women interviewed in Iraq in 1991 describe the increased burden they suffered, as men's roles within the household did not change, but women's duties expanded to include securing water and firewood for their families on a day-to-day basis."

In Kabul, a city of a million people, the civil war leveled a third of the pubic buildings and 40 percent of housing; only 30 percent of the homes have drinkable water; due to electricity shortages, homes are now heated with wood-burning stoves, making wood procurement an additional chore. The cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Taliqan, Jalalabad and Kandahar suffered extensive damage from the U.S. bombing (New York Times, Jan. 21). This devastation places huge burdens on Afghan women.

Food shortages. Some 7.5 million Afghans are dependent on the UN for food. U.S. bombings have disrupted food supply networks. "Hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians, as always mostly women and children, could be dead from malnutrition by spring. All depends on how much aid can be trucked into Afghanistan in the next few weeks. (The Nation, Jan. 14)

Maternal and child health: "The destruction of healthcare systems as well as the shortage of food and medical supplies results in poor obstetrical care with increased numbers of spontaneous abortions and miscarriages, and increased maternal death and infant mortality," say Ashford and Huet-Vaughn.

Today, 17 Afghan women die for every 1,000 births, the second-worst rate in the world; 247 infants die for every 1,000 live births.

Increase in rape: "Both the Taliban forces and forces now grouped in the United Front [National Alliance] have sexually assaulted, abducted and forcibly married women during the armed conflict, targeting them on the basis of both gender and ethnicity. Thousands of women have been physically assaulted. ..." (Human Rights Watch, 2001 report)

Most refugees are women and children, according to Ashford and Huet-Vaughn. Refugee camps "are often sites of corruption and violence, where rape and sexual exploitation are rarely documented or punished. Women often must resort to prostitution in order to gain food for themselves and their children." Some 70 percent of Afghan refugees are women.

Many are threatened by exposure. For example, at Akora Khattak camp, 10,275 families are living in plastic sheets in the cold and the wind. Many are women and children from Parwan, Kapista, Takhar, Badakhshan, Baghlan, Balkh and Kundoz provinces of Afghanistan. The majority have no utensils to prepare food, no warm clothes, shoes or blankets, and are sleeping on the ground. (The Nation, Dec. 31)

Land mines "pose a particular threat to women," according to Ashford and Huet-Vaughn, as they do much of the farming. "Frequently the mines are seeded in agricultural land, where they remain long after hostilities are over, to explode when farmers return to till the fields."

"Nearly 5,000 unexploded and highly volatile cluster bomblets may be littered across areas of Afghanistan that were targeted by U.S. warplanes." (Human Rights Watch, Nov. 16, 2001) Land mines from the civil war period "kill or maim three Afghans a day." (New York Times, Jan. 20)

--Joyce Chediac

Reprinted from the Feb. 7, 2002, issue of Workers World newspaper

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