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.

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

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

"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.

A prime example is Bibi Aisha. Ms. Aisha was married when she was 14 to someone she says didn't want to marry and who abused her. After about four years of marriage and abuse she ran away. When she was found by her family, they cut off her nose and ears as punishment – considered a rather barbaric form of punishment by most Afghan standards. It made international headlines and the Taliban were immediately suspected, but, in fact, the Taliban has condemned the incident and says it is conducting an investigation to determine who is to blame.

Incidents of such violence against women have also occurred under those in the Afghan government chosen to protect women.

Last spring, Marhaba Karimi, the former women’s affairs director in Kunar Province, and her husband made major headlines throughout the country when they were convicted of brutally torturing and killing their daughter-in-law. Ms. Karimi was the head of women's affairs for the US-supported Afghan government in Kunar, set up to protect women's rights, yet she got caught up in a rural murder scandal that most Afghans would describe as backward. While such incidents remain rare, the trial was a black mark on women from rural areas working on behalf of other women in the government.

“It’s difficult to expect that everyone in this country will change their attitude in just 10 years. We will probably need at least 50 years,” says Sayeda Mojgan Mostafavi, technical and policy deputy at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

More traditional women's shelters?

Controversy stirred last month when the Ministry of Women’s Affairs announced its plans to begin regulating shelters for women who've had to flee their homes, mainly out of fear of abuse. Traditionally Afghans keep women in their homes and don't let them out, unless they have a male escort.

The ministry officials say that they will only intervene to impose health and safety regulations and stop wasteful mismanagement of the shelters.

For women’s groups in Afghanistan though, the move raises a red flag about the government’s future intentions.

Initially there were concerns that the ministry had fallen under the sway of conservatives who wanted to see traditional Afghan cultural practices implemented. Critics of the government plan to regulate shelters say they worry that a more traditional hand on the shelters could actually endanger the safety of some women.

“We feel that if today the government would like to control the shelters, then tomorrow they will start controlling the civil-society led NGOs, especially the women’s organizations,” says Huria Samira Hamidi, country director for the Afghan Women’s Network.

Millions invested, but limited gains

Additionally, a number of women’s right groups have grown frustrated with the seemingly limited returns on the amount of money invested in women’s issues since 2001. Like much development work in Afghanistan, it remains difficult to quantify what the millions of dollars invested in advancing the rights of women has bought.

“Some donors do not understand about our Afghan culture, about our Islamic culture. So much money is coming to Afghanistan in the name of women’s rights and human rights, but women’s lives or human rights never change in Afghanistan,” says Fatana Ishaq Gailani, founder and chairwoman of the Afghanistan Women Council.

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