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Page last updated at 23:18 GMT, Sunday, 16 August 2009 00:18 UK
What are we fighting for?

Saida got married at a young age
Saida has taken refuge from her abusive husband in a women's shelter

The wife of President Karzai lacks a public profile, making her one of Afghanistan's many invisible women, a campaigner on women's rights has told Panorama.

The First Lady Dr Zinat Karzai is almost never seen in public and does not speak out to improve conditions for other women in the country.

"I asked her why she does not go out with her partner, the independent president of Afghanistan," said Shahida who has known the president's wife for many years.

"'You are his wife' I said, 'educated, a medical doctor. You should help women,'" added the women's activist.

In an interview with the programme, Shahida recounted her meeting with Mrs Karzai who comes from her home town of Kandahar.

"I went to their house to find out for myself the truth about why she doesn't come out. Her answer to me was 'my husband doesn't like it. I cannot go out without his permission.'"

In the male-dominated world of Afghan politics such double standards are prevalent, according to one of the country's female politicians.

"I believe all our leaders want democracy for their neighbours, and not themselves," MP Fawzia Kofi said.

"They all talk of democracy politically, women's participation and all this progress that has been made in the past seven years.

"But when you ask about their own family members, why they cannot be a role model, then... democracy is for our neighbours, not for us," she noted.

Beaten and abused

Under the Constitution adopted five years ago, Afghan women were promised equality and human rights.

Zinat Karzai: An invisible first lady?

But in April, President Karzai signed a law which, had it been introduced, sought to control a woman's sex life and freedom in the minority Shia community. Critics say that it would have effectively legalised rape in marriage within that community.

It was described as abhorrent by US President Obama, and in the face of international protest the Afghan president backtracked.

But almost eight years after the Taliban were ousted, MP Kofi has her doubts about whether conditions for women are improving.

"It is like a step forward and hundreds of steps back," she described of the days since 9/11 when the international community came to Afghanistan.

Many believed ousting the Taliban from power would signal big changes for women, but this has not been the case for 17-year-old Saida.

Like 60% of Afghan women, Saida was married as a child despite a law that states girls may not marry before they are 16.

Panorama's Jane Corbin met Saida in a women's shelter where she had found refuge from her 60-year-old husband.

MP Fawzia Kofi and her children
MP Fawzia Kofi believes education would improve the prospects of women

She was just nine years old when her brothers sold her to her husband who, she tells Jane, was known in the village for killing two of his wives.

She spent the next few years being beaten, abused and had four miscarriages. She was taken around the country and sold for sex with other men.

Now in hiding, she is trying to get a divorce but her husband will not grant her one. With no education and unable to read or write, Saida has little to fall back on.

Aid spending

Husn Banu Ghazanfar, Minister for Women's Affairs, said part of the problem is that crimes against women have gone unpunished until now.

"Fortunately, a law of eliminating violence against women was passed recently by the Cabinet. After this then those responsible for this crime will be punished," she added.

MP Kofi believes that schooling will be the key to prevent more Afghan women from facing a bleak future.

Progress is being made - six times more children go to school now than when Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, but this is still only half of the children in the country.

A third of pupils are girls, with only 5% finishing their secondary education. Most young women, like Saida, are married off.

"Unfortunately lack of employment is a big issue and that is one of the reasons we have domestic violence… only educated women can have a job and income," MP Kofi said.

The UK has given three quarters of a billion pounds in aid, much of it for women and children, but the MP questions how it is being spent.

"The international community… should come forward and try to make sure that the funds that they give from your taxpayers is spent properly and benefiting those families who are actually heading the families with six, seven children," she said.

MP Kofi was the first woman in her family to be educated and also the first woman from her political family to have entered politics, a subject about which she is equally critical.

Right to vote

Pupils at Kapisa Girls School
Girls make up only a third of all school children in Afghanistan

The number of women cabinet ministers has been reduced from three, although there is a 30% quota of women MPs.

"I believe if there are no women in the leadership positions, how can you make policies that are fit for women?" MP Kofi asked.

But life as a woman MP is not safe: "I received some threats to me that they [fundamentalist groups] may want to kill or assassinate me.

"But then I left a letter to my children that we will die one day or the other but the pride might be that you don't die in silence."

Minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar defends the government's efforts to implement new laws giving women more rights: "The rights written into the constitution cannot be implanted in our society in five years.

"This hasn't happened in any country - not just ours and Afghanistan is a poor developing country. It may take 20 years to implement the law," she added.

With the elections, now just days away, campaigners are keen to ensure that Afghanistan's women take up their right to vote, especially as they make up 40% to 45% of the electorate.

However, cultural barriers have meant that in some areas men have been allowed to register for votes on behalf of their female relatives. Only a change in law could stop this practice, which MP Kofi believes would empower women.

"Women of Afghanistan need to understand their vote makes a difference for the future," she said.

But she remains hopeful the future will rest in the hands of the young people that make up over half the population.

"This young generation are educated, they are more open, they are civilised," she noted. "I think when they come forward at least to some extent we are able to overcome these problems."

Panorama: What Are We Fighting For? is on BBC One, Monday 17 August at 8.30pm.

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