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Never dismiss power of Afghan women

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: World saw plight of forgotten Afghan women after Taliban routed
  • Lemmon says Afghan women defied the stereotype of burqa-clad victims under Taliban
  • They are activists, teachers, business owners, but they fear gains will be lost, she writes
  • Lemmon: Strong economy brings peace: Negotiations must include women

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon covered presidential politics at ABC News in Washington. Since 2005, she has been reporting on women entrepreneurs starting small and medium-sized businesses in post-conflict economies such as those in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. She is working on "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book scheduled for early 2011 publication by HarperCollins, about a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business brought hope to more than 100 women in her community during the Taliban years.

(CNN) -- Afghan women won the world's attention nine years ago following the routing of Taliban troops at the hands of U.S. and Afghan forces. Back then, a rush of dignitaries flew to Kabul to denounce the Taliban's brutal treatment of women, although the world had largely forgotten these same women during the previous seven years.

No school, no work, no leaving the house without a man -- even a boy would do. These are the laws Afghan women learned to live with, because they had to. Yet they also found a way to work around those rules.

Throughout the Taliban years, Afghan women ran aid organizations, practiced medicine, taught schools and ran businesses. They refused to be victims; instead, they led their communities and helped them survive desolate years of economic collapse and political isolation.

Today Afghanistan's women defy the image of burqa-clad sufferers the world so often -- and so incorrectly -- thrusts upon them.

They refused to be victims; they led their communities and helped them survive years of economic collapse.
--Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Women entrepreneurs now head business consultancies, construction companies and soccer ball factories. They manage medical clinics, operate radio stations and run logistics firms. And not just in Kabul, but in provinces across the country.

Their work strengthens families by creating desperately needed jobs. In a poor country struggling against an emboldened insurgency and rising corruption, these entrepreneurs offer hope and generate income. These businesswomen argue that economic security is the strongest answer to rising violence. And increasingly, NATO forces on the ground are coming to believe they are right.

Midwives, too, are making the difference. Each day they fan out across nearly every province of the country, including areas international aid agencies do not dare to visit, bringing birthing kits and teaching health and hygiene to thousands of women. A country that is home to some of the world's deadliest maternal mortality rates has become a regional role model when it comes to swiftly saving women's lives.

Afghanistan counted barely 200 marginally educated midwives in 2001; today, that number has climbed to more than 2,000 well-trained professionals. These health providers earn valuable income to feed their own families and help others get healthier in the process. Along the way, they have become respected leaders in their communities and trusted advocates for change.

Women's organizations have also flourished since 2001. Women's groups now demand -- and win -- political attention and campaign pledges from presidential candidates who want their votes. And they help train other women to run in provincial elections.

Shelters for women and girls suffering the savagery of domestic violence have opened in throughout the country. The formidable women who run these safe houses help young girls escape marriages they never wanted and offer brutalized women hurt by their husbands the chance to start again.

Literacy and livelihood training sessions are held across Afghanistan, led by women who believe that without education, their country has no future. And yet pressed up against all this positive change is the the ominous threat of inevitable failure if today's Afghanistan continues its downward slide toward the past.

Women entrepreneurs now face stalling sales in the face of declining security and a growing threat from thugs and criminals who see kidnapping as big business. Corruption and a miserable business environment complicates their work and eats away at their profits. A scaled-up insurgency hampers the movement of midwives and makes families more nervous about sending their daughters off to work. And women leaders watch with increasing alarm as their government grows more unresponsive and less representative of half the population.

They hear the international community talk about Taliban negotiations but nobody talks to them. They fear that the gains they have made these past nine years will be erased overnight. The world, they say, looks poised to balance its problems on their backs once more.

More on Afghan women: Still a long road to equality

As Afghan leaders and the international community debate Afghanistan's fate, it is worth remembering that the country's women are not passive victims waiting for hand-outs. Nor are they press conference darlings to be appeased with notional gestures and a nod to future promises once security improves. They are resilient survivors and formidable leaders who demand a seat at the negotiating table alongside the men who will decide their nation's fate.

They want the right to contribute to their societies as entrepreneurs, teachers, mothers, doctors and activists -- as citizens who make their country better, just as they always have. They are among their country's brightest hopes and its most marginalized voices.

Afghanistan's women deserve the international community's support because they are a valued ally in the battle for a safer, prosperous, and more secure Afghanistan. Every day they work to create a better nation for the next generation. And that is a fight the world wants to win.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

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