The situation of girls and women in Afghanistan, which has suffered 19 years of war, was described as "dire" by participants in an inter-agency gender mission to the country on 10-24 November 1997. "Our conclusion on the situation of women in Afghanistan is that it is a very dire one where girls and women are not free to enjoy any of their rights," said Angela King, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women. Ms. King, who headed the mission, observed that the country's lack of central government made it difficult for the UN to interact with authorities, "It does produce a situation where there is a feeling of fear, even in those areas that are relatively stable," she said.

Many areas of the country were visited by participants in the mission, which included representatives of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) UN Population Fund (UNFPA), World Health Organization (WHO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), and the government of Norway. They visited UN projects and met with people at schools, refugee camps, prisons and hospitals. Ms King said these visits allowed the mission to witness directly the difficulties encountered by Afghan women, whose greatest concerns were about poverty and the lack or even absence of education.

Women in Afghanistan rank the lowest of 130 countries covered by the UNDP gender development index

Maternal mortality in the country is the world's second highest

Only 4% of girls are literate

The Mission worked on developing a set of pragmatic, field-oriented guidelines addressing gender concerns that can be used by United Nations agencies, donors and NGOs when implementing their programmes, and to establish key indicators to assist agencies monitoring compliance with the guidelines. Endorsed by the UN's Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs, this approach is part of the development of a "principle-centred approach" in response to continued restrictions on women's rights in Afghanistan.

Contact : Division for the Advancement of Women, Room DC2-1204, United Nations, New York NY10017, United States.

Telephone +1-212/963 8034, Fax +1-212/963 3463, website: http://www.un.org/dspd/daw