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Afghan women see little progress in battle for rights

Say commitment for equality does not match rhetoric

KABUL— In 2009, the United States gave Wazhma Frogh the International Woman of Courage award for her women’s rights activism in Afghanistan. Prominently displayed in Frogh’s office is a picture of then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton granting her the award as first lady Michelle Obama smiles, clapping, by her side.

Four years later, the United States denied her a visa when she was trying to get away from an Afghan militia commander who she says was persecuting her.

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For Frogh, the experience underlined the state of the women’s rights movement in her country. Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban, billions of dollars have been spent, the West and the Afghan government have offered countless words of support, yet the successes that have been achieved remain vulnerable. Ultimately, women still have nowhere to turn when their battle for equal rights puts them on the firing line, she said.

‘‘They give you an award but they don’t support you when you need them,’’ she said. ‘‘I always thought that if my government didn’t help me I would always be able to turn to the United States. I never thought that they would turn their back on me.’’

Frogh’s Women Peace and Security Research Institute works with the Interior Ministry to get more women in ministry jobs and holds training sessions with policewomen, many of whom face sexual harassment.

Frogh counsels women on their rights, and her institute compiles statistics and researches abuses against women.

Last year, she tried to go temporarily to the United States to gain some distance from a militia commander who she says was terrorizing her after she identified him in a report to NATO as a repetitive rights violator.

The commander had her followed. He drowned her in text messages, warning that he knew her every move. Frogh said she would be at the airport and a text message would arrive from the commander: ‘‘Welcome home.’’

He threatened her sisters and paid her neighbors to complain to the police, alleging that the many women who visited her office were immoral, Frogh says. She had to relocate her office.

Aware of the harassment, the US-based Institute of Inclusive Security invited Frogh to spend six to 12 months as a visiting fellow.

Frogh said she was told the visa was denied because of fears she would overstay. But she said she neither wanted asylum nor to overstay her visa, only a respite from the harassment.

The US Embassy spokesman in Kabul, Robert B. Hilton, refused to comment, saying the embassy does not discuss visa matters.

‘‘Certainly, we were disappointed when her visa was denied,’’ said Evelyn Thornton, chief executive officer of the institute. ‘‘We have enormous respect for Ms. Frogh’s activism for human rights, peace, and security in Afghanistan. She’s a courageous leader who has made a significant difference in the lives of many.’’

Gains have been made in Afghanistan. Gone are the rules imposed by the Taliban forcing women to wear the all-encompassing burqa and barring girls from school. Now, as many as 4 million girls are in school, and women sit in Afghanistan’s Parliament.

But Frogh and other women’s rights activists said those changes, while important, are superficial. Women’s equality was a priority when the memory of the Taliban was fresh, but over the years the commitment has waned.

It became a mantra recited by the Afghan government and nongovernment organizations to get international funding, and a flag for Western governments to wave as a symbol of success over the Taliban, said Frogh and an Afghan parliamentarian, Fawzia Koofi.

‘‘Women’s rights is the most politicized issue in Afghanistan, before even talks with the Taliban, and I am not happy with it,’’ said Koofi, referring to the Afghan government’s attempts to negotiate with Taliban insurgents, raising women activists’ fears that authorities will compromise on their rights if necessary to reach a deal.

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