The curtain of invisibility is finally lifting for the women of Afghanistan. They have been subject to Soviet occupation, civil war, severe drought, and government that limits opportunities for women.

Under the rule of the Taliban, beginning in 1995, they could not work, go to school, or leave their homes without being accompanied by a male relative. They had to keep themselves entirely covered. The windows to their homes had to be painted lest some passerby look upon them.

With the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, change is coming, albeit slowly. Violence remains a constant threat.

In Kabul, "women are still not visible," said Carol Yost, director of women's programs for The Asia Foundation. "They don't feel safe, and they shouldn't. It's largely a city of men. The country is still at war."

Most women continue to wear the burqa, the voluminous garment that covers them from head to toe, which many non-Islamic women around the world view as a symbol of oppression.

But rebuilding Afghanistan after 23 years of conflict is not about shedding burqas—it's about revitalizing education, providing livelihood skills, and improving health care, said Betsy White, a scholar of Islam who has worked extensively in Afghanistan.

"Westerners need to get over their obsession with the burqa," she said. "In a place where there is no assured sense of law and order, being completely covered can be very useful."

In a country devastated by war, she explained, survival and earning a living are the highest priorities. And that means providing educational opportunities and skills-training.

International aid agencies are focusing an enormous amount of resources on re-opening the country's primary schools on March 26, the traditional start of the school year. To address the needs of young women and girls from the age of 12 to 20 who have suffered so much already, the National Geographic Society, in partnership with The Asia Foundation, is creating the Afghan Girls Fund.

Afghanistan is an extremely entrepreneurial culture, and a combination of services that teaches both livelihood skills and literacy is needed for this age group, experts say.

Nation of Widows

White said a "catch-up" education program for girls from 10 to 20 years old is badly needed. "There's a huge group of young people who have had no education at all," she said.

Any programs targeted to women of these ages need to be specially designed to meet their needs, she explained, saying: "You can't put a 16-year-old in a classroom with an eight-year-old and teach them how to read. It's too awkward, and the needs are not the same."

But the focus cannot be strictly educational, she warned.

Yost agreed. "The first priority for everybody is to earn a living," she said. "Opportunities need to be set up so that women can come to a center and learn skills that earn money—tailoring, weaving, shoemaking, spinning—and they can also spend two hours learning to read, or learning some accounting skills so they can run a household or a small business."

Setting up such centers is fraught with challenges. In Afghan cities, where many women are already fearful of leaving their homes, schools for young women and girls must be easily accessible and perceived as morally and physically safe.

In rural areas, some people are still resistant to educating girls. "Part of it is Islamic conservatism—they think, 'What's the point?'" said White. "But issues of affordability must also be overcome. There are [required] uniforms, books. In some cases bribes must be paid to enroll a child."

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many of Afghanistan's women are widows.

Officials estimate there are 40,000 war widows in Kabul alone, but the situation affects the entire country. Taliban rule put women in a doubly difficult position: They were not allowed to work, but were frequently the sole providers for their families.

"If a woman is baking bread or taking in laundry for her neighbors to support her family, the loss of a girl's labor is an issue," said White. "A six-year-old daughter can take care of the youngest child while her mother works to earn money."

Need for Health Care

The need for improved health care goes hand in hand with increased education, experts say.

Afghanistan's life expectancy rates, at about 45 years, are among the lowest in the world. The country is one of the few places in the world where men's life expectancy is longer than women's—this in a country that has seen armed conflict for close to a quarter of a century.

Under the Taliban, women could not be treated by male physicians, which effectively cut off access to medical care. "We interviewed women at one of the refugee camps in Pakistan, and most had never seen a health care worker," said White. "The concept of whether they had any pain, or why anyone would even be asking them or concerned, was completely alien."

Psychic pain is also undoubtedly high. About 25 percent of children die before their fifth birthday, according to the World Health Organization. Half of all children under five years old have stunted growth because of chronic malnutrition; up to 10 percent have acute malnutrition.

Nearly 90 percent of all births are unattended by any kind of health care worker, and the country has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Health care experts have estimated that more than 85 percent of childhood deaths could be easily prevented.

Providing access to reproductive health care and training in nutrition, family planning, and sanitation are crucial to rebuilding the nation, a recent United Nations report stated.

The potential resources are there. In the 1980s, one-third of the students at Kabul University were women, and before the Taliban came to power Afghanistan had women judges, doctors, and professors. More than 70 percent of the country's teachers were women before the Taliban closed schools in 1995 and 1996

"There's so much that needs to be done, and it costs so little there," said Yost. "The Afghan Girls Fund will make an important difference to many young Afghan women."

--Hillary Mayell, National Geographic News [March 12, 2002]