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As Taliban peace talks resume, what’s at stake for Afghan women?

During his surprise Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan, President Trump announced he had restarted talks with the Taliban. The ability of the conflict-wracked nation to achieve peace is at stake -- but so is progress for women, who could not work, study or even leave home unescorted under Taliban rule. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports on the outlook for women's health and education there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump returned early this morning from a surprise trip to Afghanistan, where he said that talks between the U.S. and the Taliban had restarted.

    At stake, the prospects for peace in this conflict-racked nation, but also at stake progress for women there who, when ruled by the Taliban, could not work, study or even leave the house without a male escort.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In one of the toughest countries in the world to be a woman, this clinic offers a refuge.

    The Afghan women visiting Dr. Najmussama Shefajo this morning will get some of the best care in the country.

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    This is X-ray of the uterus and the fallopian tubes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She is one of Afghanistan's top gynecologists, an expert on women's reproductive health.

    Dr. Shefajo gave us a tour of her clinic, full of the latest technology that she imported herself.

    For the patients that you see, how important is this sort of equipment?

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    For the patient, we reach to the diagnosis soon, and there is no need to go out of the country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    So it saves lives?

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    Yes, of course.

    This is the nose. This is the mouth

  • Jane Ferguson:

    To Dr. Shefajo, interaction with her patients is important.

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    Here, the mother sees the baby, her own ultrasound.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    How do they react?

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    Yes. They are very happy. Right now, they know this is the head, this is the heart, this is the stomach, because I teach them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That's one reason women love coming here.

    It would have been absolutely unthinkable for Afghan women just 20, even 10 years ago to have had this kind of technology.

    Dr. Shefajo knows that all too well. She began her career delivering babies on mud floors in Taliban-controlled parts of the country.

    When you were working under Taliban rule, did you ever imagine that one day you would have a clinic like this, equipment like this?

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    I was a — I had a hope.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    You pictured it?

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Since the U.S. invasion, Afghan women like Dr. Shefajo have, through their own hard work and self-belief, built incredible new lives.

    That's why, today, they watch the news anxiously. A major campaign promise by President Trump was to bring American troops home. And in September, he came close to making a deal with the Taliban, after more than nine months of negotiations in Qatar, negotiations where Afghan women quite literally had no seat at the table.

    The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until their ouster by U.S.-led forces in 2001. That was a deeply cruel time for Afghan women. The Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islamic law afforded them virtually no rights.

    Trump's deal has fallen apart for now, but women like Freshta Karim are afraid their rights could still be pushed aside to make it happen. She's part of a new generation, educated Afghan women completely invested in this country's future.

    She discovered Afghan children had trouble getting hold of books to read, so she gathered donations and bought a few old buses, turning them into mobile libraries.

    We joined Freshta in one poor neighborhood of Kabul on her way to a school.

  • Freshta Karim:

    It allows them to have general knowledge and broaden their horizons of life and understanding of world, and inspire them, inspire them to think about what they want to be, and also understand different characters' roles, to put themselves into different characters' shoe, and start having an understanding of complex human feelings.

    And I think this all adds to one's critical thinking.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Freshta won a scholarship to study for a master's degree in public policy at Oxford University in England. After returning to Afghanistan, she took a job as an analyst with the government. But her heart was elsewhere.

  • Freshta Karim:

    And whenever I would work with children, that would make me happy, because Afghanistan is one of the youngest countries in the world. And it made so much sense to me to work with people who will be the future of this country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    How do you keep hopeful and keep motivated and keep inspired to keep doing this work?

  • Freshta Karim:

    I think children. We have the responsibility to create that opportunity for them to meet their potential.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Her potential is at stake, however, if the Taliban returns to power.

  • Freshta Karim:

    I think many of us — or at least I can talk about myself. I might push back for as long as I can, to resist and to fight for the city that we have built it ourselves.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Outside major cities, much of life looks similar to the way it did under Taliban rule. Child marriage is rampant, as is violence against women.

    It's in the home that women are most at risk. Those that escape abusive husbands are the lucky ones.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The day I left home, my husband had beaten me very badly, and I had injuries on my head. So I left with my children and ran to the police station.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    This young woman, whom we won't name for her own safety, is one of them. The police brought her to this shelter. Her husband, she tells us, is a violent drug addict.

  • Woman (through translator):

    When he was beating me, I was thinking about how I could run away. But how would I raise the children and keep them in school?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Amid a climate of fear and intimidation, even the shelters can be vulnerable places.

    This one is managed by a U.S.-based charity. And those who run it tell us people in the community still opposed to women's rights spread lies about the shelters, and the facilities come under attack. Even the location is kept secret, and we are not allowed to film anything that could betray where it is.

    But for thousands of battered women who have come through here, it's a lifeline, women like this 22-year-old, who escaped her abusive husband six months ago.

  • Woman (through translator):

    My husband was a drug smuggler, and he always used to keep knives and guns. Every night, I thought he might kill me.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    If this shelters had not been here, if this facility did not exist, where would you have gone?

  • Woman:

    If there had not been a shelter like this, I might have killed myself, because there is no place for a woman to go if there are not these shelters.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Elsewhere in Kabul, we see what she means. The burns unit at Istiklal Government Hospital is a depressing place, not just because of the power cuts and poor hygiene.

    Dr. Abdul Khaled Waqila has seen an increase in self-immolation, women pouring gasoline over themselves and lighting a match.

  • Abdul Khaled Waqila (through translator):

    It is only the burns patients who come to us. Those who eat poison or do something else to themselves go to another part of the hospital. So I can only say that the easiest thing for them to use is gasoline. They have access to it.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Sat on the end of her bed, and completely alone, this young woman has burns across much of her body and a deep gash over her throat. She responds to questions with just a whisper.

    At first, she told the doctor it was an accident, but later confided it wasn't.

    There are laws to protect women in Afghanistan, but where the letter of that law becomes enforcement is the bigger challenge.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    There is a huge distance between laws and implementation.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Shaharzad Akbar is the new head of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    It requires not only changing the legal framework, which there have been improvements in the legal framework, but also it's changing the mentality and behavior of people who deliver justice across Afghanistan, you know?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Akbar won a scholarship to study abroad, and completed a master's degree at Smith College in Massachusetts. She wanted to apply that education to making life better for women in Afghanistan.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    For many women I know, they aspire to lives different and better than their mothers. For some, it's as simple as saying, you know what, I want to have access to a clinic when I give birth.

    That's it. I'm not interested in education. I'm not interested in becoming a pilot. I want to marry. I want to have children. But I know that it's my right to have access to health care when I give birth.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    At just 31 years old, she feels huge pressure to lead the way for other Afghan women.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    It changes a lot for the young — the younger girls who are watching us. I am — every day, I am conscious of being watched.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    They also watch to see what choices powerful politicians are making. If the Taliban were to return to power, she says, Afghanistan's women risk losing everything.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    Women were stoned by them. Women were flogged by them, and this continuously happening in areas under their control. Now imagine the possibility of them not only coming back to power, but also determining what the laws of Afghanistan will look like. That's really scary.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Flying up to Badakhshan province in the rural north of Afghanistan, we met with a group of 83 Taliban fighters who had surrendered to government forces just a few days before.

    We challenged them on their attitudes.

    If the Taliban come back into power, how will things be different for women this time around?

  • Man (through translator):

    There should be some changes, like in university with co-education. There shouldn't be things like that, like you standing here and not covering yourself, wearing this kind of tight clothing. It's not allowed.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Would you work with female leaders in government?

  • Man (through translator):

    We are not against women's education, because we do need doctors. We need educated females. But it should be in a framework of Islamic principles.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    But back in Kabul, Dr. Shefajo tells us she sees Islamic principles already being applied by women in their lives every day, with the services they provide through their professions.

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    We want our right as a woman, as a doctor, as a mother, and as an Afghan, as a Muslim.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    You have daughters. What do you hope for their future? How do you picture it?

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    For my elder daughter, I want her to be a pilot.

  • Najmussama Shefajo:

    She is also interested to travel a lot. But for the others, they are interested to be a doctor.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Like their mom.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    As politicians negotiate with the Taliban to end the war, Afghan women risk losing their hard-fought freedoms and rights. They could end up paying a devastating price for peace in Afghanistan.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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