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Highlighting Women's Struggles In Afghanistan and Iraq
Nora Boustany
The Washington Post

Democratic and Republican women joined last Thursday evening at a screening of the award-winning movie "Osama," which champions the cause of Afghan women who have been subjected to religious tyranny and oppression.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Paula J. Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs, spoke at a special screening of the movie, hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America.

At the event, Clinton and Chris McGurk, vice chairman of MGM, launched the Vital Voices Afghan and Iraqi Women's Leadership Program, backed by a $6 million grant to train and empower women.

The film is the story of a teenager who masquerades as a boy so she can bring bread home during the period that the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. Though renamed Osama by a friend who sought to protect her, she raises the suspicions of an elderly sheik instructing young boys. Osama's identity is revealed and she is led away for execution, only to be rescued by the sheik, who forces her into his harem of other unwilling wives kept under lock and key.

"I'm really hoping this movie will reignite American interest in the state of Afghan women. It is no longer on our front pages, but I don't want Afghanistan to be forgotten," Clinton said in an interview before the screening. "It is also important for American girls and women not to take their good fortune for granted. It is a moral and human imperative."

In remarks following the presentation, she said, "This is a message that Republicans and Democrats care about."

Clinton visited Iraq and Afghanistan last Thanksgiving and recently wrote a letter to President Bush describing her concerns about setbacks for Iraqi women. She called on U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq to guarantee the full participation of women in a planned handover to Iraqi control.

Chao, just back from visiting a women's rights center in Hilla, Iraq, said the people she met were "hungry for democracy. . . . We know we have got our work cut out for us in Iraq."

Dobriansky said that although the film does not have a happy ending, "The basic impulses of women and men everywhere -- to live in a prosperous, free and peaceful society -- can never be fully extinguished."

Afghan Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad said Afghan girls have returned to school in record numbers. About 42 percent of the 4 million children attending classes are girls, he said.

"We have come a long way in two short years," Jawad said. "But in order to help Afghan women realize their rights and visions, we need the continued support and sustained engagement of the U.S. We must keep Afghanistan in the spotlight."

Bigger Anti-Drug Role Urged

Antonio Maria Costa, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, met with U.S. officials yesterday, seeking action to counter increased opium poppy production and drug trafficking in Afghanistan.

Costa told Pentagon and State Department officials that the activity is linked to international smuggling organizations and has increased since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2002. He proposed creating counternarcotics units within provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan.

He said there was a need to improve intelligence and track transshipments through tribal areas still ruled by warlords on the eastern border with Pakistan and in the northeast near Tajikistan. Part of the effort, he said, would be to avoid confusing traffickers with local farmers, who should be supported in developing alternative sources of income.

Opium poppy cultivation increased from about 20,000 acres in 2001 -- when the Taliban banned cultivation, but not trafficking -- to about 200,000 acres, Costa said. He said income from opium production has jumped from $56 million in 2001 to more than $1 billion in 2003 because of the sharp increase in prices and cultivated areas.

Confusion for Chadian

Ahmat Soubiane Hassaballah, Chad's ambassador to Washington, said he is attempting to sort out reports from the Chadian capital of N'Djamena, quoting radio and television broadcasts that he was recalled from his post last Friday.

Soubiane said message traffic from the capital, which usually summarizes decrees and news from Chad, did not list such a report. He said neither he nor the State Department was officially notified of the measure, although a Web site run by an opposition party carried the news, quoting local media.

"I am a little flustered by all this. I have not been able to reach the Foreign Ministry, but it is their duty to inform me," the ambassador said.

The ambassador has criticized the country's president, Lt. Gen. Idriss Deby, who has proposed a constitutional change that would make him president for life.

"There has to be an orderly, smooth and democratic transition," Soubiane said. His reported firing, he said, "changes nothing about the principles and democratic aspirations Chadians are committed to."


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