In this Dec. 20, 2012 file photo, Afghan policewomen attend their graduation ceremony in Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch urged the Afghan government on Thursday to force police stations to build restrooms for female officers to protect them from sexual harassment. The group said only a handful of provincial police stations have separate, safe and lockable toilets or changing rooms for women officers, leaving them at risk in a nation where some have reportedly been raped by male colleagues. (AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi)
WASHINGTON _ Representative Niki Tsongas, back from her fifth trip to Afghanistan, warned Wednesday that the strides made by Afghan women could be jeopardized by any potential negotiations to reach a long-term peace agreement with the notoriously anti-female Taliban.
The Lowell Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee accompanied five other female members of Congress from both parties on a special Mother’s Day trip to the region to meet with female US soldiers, Afghan women, and top US and Afghan officials.
She said the primary concern on the minds of local women she met with in Kabul and the western city of Herat was that the US-backed government in Kabul will reach a reconciliation with the Taliban to end the fighting that could also return them to the status they endured during Taliban rule in the 1990s, when they were forced to wear burqas in public, were prohibited from going to work or attending school, and were even subject to stonings and other torture.
“I am very concerned that the gains for women will be traded away given the Taliban’s fierce intent on marginalizing women, if not worse,” Tsongas said in an interview. “There is a lot of concern about the reconciliation process.”
Tsongas, who serves as the top Democrat on the panel’s Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, met with female students at a university in Herat, where 40 percent of the student body is female.
“One of our success stories there is the gains of Afghan women,” she said.
But she said their personal stories—and real fear of losing the opportunities available since the Taliban was toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001—has energized her to speak out on their behalf as US and Afghan officials seek to find a way to stabilize the country through a political settlement with the Taliban.
“They really alerted me to the issue,” she said. “It something we have to think about.”
The congressional delegation was the first to visit Afghanistan’s third largest city, which is near the Iranian border.
Tsongas also said that following meetings with General Joseph Dunford, the top American general, she is more hopeful that Afghan security forces being trained by the United States and its NATO allies will be able to take full control of the nation’s defense when foreign troops leave at the end of 2014.
“There is a lot more confidence in the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces,” she said.
But with the fighting season now getting underway, she noted, the jury is still out on whether Afghans can truly carry the burden.
“This summer will be a real test,” she said.