"The government is very concerned about these reports," Afghan Minister of Women's Affairs Habiba Suraby told IRIN on Sunday in the Afghan capital, Kabul, noting she would soon travel to the region herself to investigate.
"Afghan women have always suffered and have passed through years of depravation and discrimination," she said, noting that with the collapse of the Taliban regime, the people of Afghanistan and the world community would never again tolerate such restrictions on women - particularly in the education sector.
Suraby's comments follow the recent release of a report by international watchdog group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), which said women could be deprived of education due to new rules being enforced in western Afghanistan.
The report stated that because of a shortage of female teachers, the restrictions would in effect prevent women and girls from receiving proper education. The new rules were announced on 10 January by the deputy head of Herat's education department, Mohammad Din Fahim.
According to the official, current teaching methods allowing men to teach women and girls were "in contradiction with Islamic law." The governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, who approves all government decrees, had ordered increasing restrictions on women and girls over the past year, HRW asserted.
Khan's ruling was supported by Afghan Chief Justice Maulavi Fazel Hadi Shinwari, who reportedly said he did not allow mixed education for boys and girls. "I have told the government to take steps to follow the law," Shinwari said, adding that he did not know if Afghan President Hamid Karzai's central government would enforce segregation in schools.
Rights groups have strongly criticised restrictions put in place by Khan's conservative provincial authority, describing them as reminiscent of the fundamentalist Taliban, who banned women from the workplace and all forms of education.
Meanwhile, the UN has reaffirmed its plans to send a rights team to the region to discuss restrictions on women's education by the provincial authorities. The team will meet officials in Herat to discuss conditions for women. "They will travel to Herat this week," Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, told IRIN.
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