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Women's rights in Afghanistan lose steam

The fall of the Taliban may have brought change for many women in major urban areas, but today women are running into cultural barriers that go beyond Taliban influence.

By Correspondent / March 8, 2011

Afghan women walk to participate in a gathering to mark International Women's Day in Ghazni west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, March 8.

Rahmatullah Naikzad/AP


Kabul, Afghanistan

Some 10 years after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, women may be losing steam in the battle for gender equality.

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"There has been a lot of effort to damage the situation of women in the law of Afghanistan” in the past five years, says Naheed Farid, a member of parliament from Herat Province. “I cannot say that there is no progress. As a woman I did not have the right to go out shopping [before 2001], but now I am a member of the parliament.” However, she adds that more needs to be done in order to protect the rights of women.

Throughout Afghanistan, women like Mrs. Farid increasingly appear to be encountering a number of hurdles. The fall of the Taliban may have brought a wave of change for many women in major urban areas, but today women are running into cultural barriers that go beyond the Taliban's influence.

Lack of enthusiasm for girls' education, limited impact of development funding, regulation at women's shelters, and government malfeasance all seem to point to reluctance among some Afghanis to let go of traditional views of women.

Last week, Oxfam released a report indicating that there have been significant strides in girls’ education – the number of girls in school has climbed from 5,000 under the Taliban to 2.4 million today. But experts say those numbers present an incomplete picture.

“There was loads of energy going on and now that energy really isn’t there. There isn’t that drive to get girls in school and keep them in school,” says Louise Hancock, a spokesperson for Oxfam in Afghanistan.

Of the 2.4 million girls currently in school, a disproportionate number of them – 1.9 million – are in primary school, signaling a significant drop-off after the sixth grade. Additionally, that number only reflects enrollment, not attendance. In 2009, 22 percent of female students were absent for the entire year or listed as permanently absent according to the same report.

What's happening?

"[The Afghan government and international donors] are still putting money into education, it’s just that it’s not being targeted in the right way for girls,” Ms. Hancock says.

Another theory is that during nine years of war, Afghan politicians have simply lost the determination required to push through serious changes to enhance women’s rights.

“There was more enthusiasm and more hope [for women after the fall of the Taliban], but now it’s reduced a little bit because of the lack of political will. I think the women who are active, they don’t want to give up, they want to continue,” says Sima Samar, chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

But one of the biggest challenges is that some of the worst women's rights abuses comes not from the Taliban, but from rural Afghan society, which is steeped in traditional views of how woman should behave.


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