UNAMA Year in Review April 2009: UN opposes Shi'a family law

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The United Nations called on President Karzai to abolish the controversial family law applying to the country's minority Shi'a community.

"I want to take this opportunity again, the laws which were taken in Afghanistan, I would urge again that the President of Afghanistan should abolish these laws which severely infringe on the basic human rights of women," Mr Ban told an informal session of the UN's General Assembly in April.

Earlier, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay also criticized the law and asked for it to be repealed. That such a law has been passed in 2009 targeting women in this manner is "extraordinary, reprehensible and reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s," she stressed.

Not yet published, the law, which was passed by the two houses of Afghanistan's parliament before being reportedly signed by President Karzai in March, regulated the personal status of Shi'a community members, including relations between men and women, divorce and property rights.

It reportedly denied Afghan Shi'a women the right to leave their homes except for 'legitimate' purposes; forbade them from working or receiving education without their husbands' express permission; weakened mothers' rights in the event of a divorce; and made it impossible for wives to inherit houses and land from their husbands, even if husbands could inherit property from their wives.

Meantime, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it would help nine million Afghans in the year at a press conference to reveal its vision for 2009. The Agency also announced it distributed 21,000 tons of food to more than 1.5 million people in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan in March.

There were other efforts undertaken by other UN agencies to contribute to Afghanistan's food security. Not to be left behind, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), along with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock began to implement a US$ 2 million project in the north-eastern province of Baghlan to help poor Afghan farmers to become self-sufficient.

As a part of the project, 6,600 fruit trees, including almond, apricot, peach and plum were distributed in over 100 gardens covering 110 acres of farming land.

FAO also announced a dairy project that boosted that boosted the incomes of 1,600 Afghan families as much as five-fold.

The FAO dairy initiative in the capital, Kabul and the four provinces of Logar, Wardak, Mazar and Kunduz, helped increase family incomes from US$ 130 to US$ 650 a year. Further, women do the bulk of the work for the scheme and keep 95 per cent of the money.

The initiative started in 2003 and focuses on integrated elements such as improved fodder, access to artificial insemination and improved veterinary services. "Starting from scratch, we helped [farmers] increase their milk production to 10,000 litres a day," said FAO Dairy Officer Tony Bennett.

The Global Action Week for Education was also celebrated in April. On this occasion, the UN called for serious action to improve literacy rates in Afghanistan, one of the most illiterate countries in the world.

"UNESCO and UNICEF are calling on all stakeholders in Afghanistan to take serious action towards overcoming challenges to improve literacy in the country," said Shigeru Aoyagi, UNESCO's country representative.

According to statistics, only 34 per cent of the population in Afghanistan in literate with one out of every two men and four out of five women aged 15 or above cannot read or write. Approximately 34 per cent of the population is literate.

In fact, the UN's Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, also called for new and more strategic thinking about the country's education needs. He added that Afghanistan's economic and social development required the Afghan government and the international community to unite behind a broad and long-term educational strategy.

April was also the month when Afghanistan's first HIV treatment centre opened at Kabul's Infectious Disease Hospital.

The HIV treatment centre, which is technically and financially supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), has medicines for one-year treatment of 30 HIV-positive patients.

Meantime, 1,000 Afghan returnees from two camps in Nangahar province were given the opportunity and resources to build their own houses as a result of action taken by the Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) shelter project

Sayed Arif, was one of the returnees who received his land plot and material, and began constructing his new home. "My family lived for one year in a tent and for one year with relatives. But now, after completion of a survey, I will receive construction materials," he said.

By Aditya Mehta, UNAMA