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Four Afghan women go missing while on US study program

The delegation of 22 female Afghan government officials and civil society leaders who took part in the Perspectives on Democracy program at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Four went missing before their scheduled return to Afghanistan.

Four Afghan women went missing while on a three-week educational program in the United States, a spokesman at the University of Virginia said Monday, and federal authorities reportedly are looking for them.

The women were among 22 Afghan female professionals studying the rule of law at the university’s Center for Politics, which was hosting the program in partnership with the California-based nonprofit group Relief International. It was sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and ran May 21 to June 6.  

"In the course of that at a certain point, Relief International told us that two women had left the program," said Kyle Kondik, spokesman for the Center for Politics at the university. "Later in the program, two others left overnight."

The group, made up of  teachers, professors, lawyers,  judges and leaders of non-governmental organizations, was staying at the Cavalier Inn in Charlottesville and was picked up each morning for excursions and presentations on U.S. history, government, rule of law, pluralism, freedom of expression and workplace practices.

Federal officials are looking for the women, The Associated Press reported, citing a State Department source.

The other women in the program departed the United States on schedule.

A news release issued by the university said the women chosen for the program were using Afghanistan’s nascent legal system to protect the rights of women and children against abuses like forced marriage, child marriage, domestic violence and exploitation of children.

"Little by little, we are making a difference," said Hamida Saidi, a public defender who was among the Afghan delegation.

The group was the third of four Afghan delegations that originally planned to take part in the Perspectives on Democracy program at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. 

"The fourth — we don’t know if and when it is going to happen,” said spokesman Kondik. "That depends on what the State Department decides."

The State Department did not immediately respond to calls seeking information on the missing women.

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