By Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - In a quiet corner of the Afghan capital, dining tables are covered with traditional fabrics, a man on the piano plays Frank Sinatra, and expatriates munch on food that can usually only be found back home.
Unlike other restaurants catering to Afghanistan's large expatriate community, the Afghan Garden Kitchen employs a cadre of all-female chefs -- teenage Girl Scouts from broken homes, that is.
"For children who may not have a father or a mother at all, we've got to find a solution where they can go and work, they're protected in their work and not forced into marriage by their families or because of their circumstances," said Marnie Gustavson, head of the non-governmental organization Parsa that runs the scout program.
Since the austere rule of the Taliban was ended by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, women have won back hard-fought rights in education, voting and work in Afghanistan, which the hardline group considered un-Islamic.
Their plight, however, remains severe, and jobs and lives are still restricted by custom and law.
Women and girls from households broken by war or drug use are particularly at risk of forced marriage or prostitution.
With a blue and yellow scouts' scarf tied around her neck, 13-year-old Zakia Shawbi moved from Kapisa province north of Kabul to the capital five years go because her drug-addict father could not support his eleven-member family.
"Three of my sisters got married and we were able to live off the money we received from their suitors ... how else could my mother raise us without our father's help?," she said.
Now she earns $20 a month, receiving orders, learning recipes and cooking -- vocational training for later in life that is part of a scout program which began in Afghanistan in 1931 and was resurrected years after the fall of the Taliban.
"It gives them more than job training, it teaches them to be self sufficient and upstanding citizens so their generation won't behave like the many war stricken, savage people of today," said Gul Ahmad Mustafa, a scout trainer.
It's not clear, however, if Shawbi will ever be able to use her skills once she leaves the scouts.
As with many jobs in Afghanistan, chefs are primarily men.
Without the backing of an influential family or being married into one, it is nearly impossible for a woman to become independent in a country consistently ranked as one of the world's worst places for women.
The dire treatment of women was the main reason Western countries gave for refusing to recognize the Taliban government as legitimate. It also caused the amount of foreign financial aid Afghanistan received to shrink significantly.
As Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks, the future for women is uncertain.
The United States and NATO, who have been fighting Taliban insurgents for 10 years in an increasingly unpopular war, have repeatedly stressed that any peace talks must abide by Afghanistan's constitution, which says the two sexes are equal.
But President Hamid Karzai's reticence on the matter, constant opposition by the Taliban, and setbacks even at the government level cast a shadow on the prospects for equality for the 15 million women who make up about half the population.
"You can create a women's shelter to help women but all it needs is for a village elder to call it a whorehouse then it goes downhill from there," Mohamad Hashim Mayar, an adviser to the non-governmental agency coordinating Afghan relief bodies.
(Editing by Jack Kimball and Robert Birsel)
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