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Senate Subcommittees Examine Humanitarian Crisis in Afghanistan

On October 10, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs and the Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism held a joint hearing to examine the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Co-chaired by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN), the hearing focused on food aid, refugees, and the plight of women in Afghanistan.

“Even before the world focused on it as a sanctuary for Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists, Afghanistan was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, the site of the greatest crisis in hunger and refugee displacement in the world,” stated Sen. Wellstone, adding: “There is no easy solution to this building crisis.” Calling upon the United States to “shore up relief operations” and “alleviate the suffering of ordinary Afghan civilians,” Sen. Wellstone noted the need to establish a “legitimate government” in Afghanistan. “Such a package must target the restoration of women’s rights that were destroyed by the Taliban, by providing secular schools for girls, and including the creation of full-scale hospitals and clinics.”

Sen. Boxer agreed with the need to restore rights to women. “They are made invisible. They are not human….They cannot go to work. They cannot go to school. They cannot see a male doctor,” she said. Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joseph Biden (D-DE) added, “When you keep half of your population subservient, there is absolutely no way you can be progressive.”

The subcommittees heard testimony from a number of representatives of the administration who discussed famine, food aid, and refugee status. Andrew Natsios of the U.S. Agency for International Development detailed the administration’s humanitarian response, which is focused on five objectives: reducing death rates, minimizing population movements, lowering and stabilizing food prices, ensuring that aid reaches those for whom it is intended, and beginning developmental relief programs that would include long-term reconstruction projects.

Alan Kreczko of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the Department of State stated, “Some 3 million Afghan refugees already reside in neighboring countries. The bulk of those are in Pakistan and Iran; about 2 million in Pakistan and some 1.5 million in Iran.” He added that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that an additional 1.5 million Afghans could flee the country.

Noting that 75 percent of Afghan refugees are women and children, Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation said, “The conditions in which these refugees fight for survival are horrific with little food, with many families having no more than plastic sheets for shelter, and with virtually no sanitation.” She added, “According to some estimates, one woman is dying in childbirth every 30 minutes and one in four children are dying before 5 years of age.”

While praising the administration’s commitment of $320 million in humanitarian aid, Ms. Smeal noted that “our government must do even more.” Specifically, she called upon the administration and other donors to provide direct funding to Afghan women-led nongovernmental organizations. “These groups are in a position to help large numbers of Afghan women and girls living as refugees in Pakistan, and where possible in Afghanistan, if only they had more resources to survive and to contend with the increasing need.”

Ms. Smeal also stated that women must be included in the reconstruction process. “The removal of the Taliban together with the restoration of the rights of women, broad-based, multi-ethnic constitutional democracy, and economic development are essential in the fights to end terrorism and to free women….In any rebuilding of Afghanistan, women must be in leadership roles.”

Dr. Nicholas de Torrente of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders spoke about the health status of women in Afghanistan. Stating that areas of the country controlled by the Northern Alliance “are better” than areas controlled by the Taliban, he added that the situation for women living under Northern Alliance rule still is not great. “Girls are allowed to go to school, and women can be teachers. However, to go to a health center, women must be accompanied by a male family member,” he said, adding that the health status of women living in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance is similar to that of women living under Taliban rule.

“I think it is important to note that even where women can go to school and teach, it is still oppressive within the Northern Alliance,” stated Sen. Boxer.

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