In most of Afghanistan today women walk around as ghosts, dressed only in a burqa, a dark shroud that covers them from head to toe, leaving only a small mesh opening from which to see.
They do so not of their own accord but because of an edict by the ruling regime called the Taliban, a radical Islamic movement that in the mid-'90s took over two-thirds of the country. Refusal to wear the burqa, or even the smallest infraction of rules such as showing the naked wrist, can lead to public beatings by the Taliban's religious police, the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice.
In the name of religion the Taliban has stripped women of their rights to choose a career, to wear what they like and to move around freely. In 1997, the Taliban even instituted a policy that forbade all hospitals in Kabul, the nation's capital, from treating the city's half-million women. Although this policy was later reversed, women still face severe restrictions to medical treatment. For example, hospital beds are designated mostly for men, and women cannot seek medical treatment for themselves or their children unless accompanied by a male chaperone, and even then can only receive care from a female physician, a rare commodity in that country.
For Zohra Rasekh, a woman with a master's degree in public health, these new laws clearly impact the health of women in her native country. Outraged at the regime's policies, Rasekh contacted Physicians for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization that investigates, documents and disseminates information about human rights abuses around the world. Together, she and they have spent the past year conducting a study to assess the health and human rights concerns of women living in Kabul under Taliban rule.
Rasekh will speak of her research and her experience in Afghanistan on Dec. 9 in the East Wing Auditorium of the School of Public Health as part of a weeklong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The events, Dec. 7 to 11, are sponsored by the school's Health and Human Rights Group, with participation from other organizations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights document has formed the basis of most modern human rights law, and, according to Julie Dugan, a member of the Health and Human Rights Group, human rights and health issues are often intertwined.
"You cannot separate health rights from human rights. When people are deprived of their human rights, they are often deprived of their rights to get adequate health," Dugan says. "These women in Afghanistan are prevented from getting proper medical care and are dying from problems that are easily treated. The only way we can improve the quality of health for these women is not to subject them to these human rights abuses."
Dugan says the weeklong event is intended to make people aware of the current human rights issues around the world, to inspire people to do something about the problems and to give people concrete ways that they can help.
"A lot of people don't know what is going on in the rest of the world. There so many human rights issues it is almost overwhelming," says Dugan, a student at the School of Public Health, who is also an attorney. "If nobody knows what is going on, then there is no pressure to put a stop to it."
Dugan says there are many organizations like the Physicians for Human Rights to which people can make a donation or with which they can volunteer their time to help.
In addition to Rasekh, the event will have many other speakers, including U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who will address the state of the world's children.