Afghanistan: Women's rights make big gains

A record amount of girls are in school in Afghanistan and the Constitution guarantees equality before the law. Can a decade-plus of success withstand Western withdrawal?

John MacDougall/AP
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (r.) greets women students from Balkh University prior to a talk at the German general consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Women’s rights, regarded as one of the most tangible gains of international intervention in Afghanistan, have made epochal gains in recent years: 4 million girls – a record for the country – are in school. Women are police officers and pilots, judges and governors. The Constitution guarantees equality before the law.

Maternal mortality rates have dropped decidedly – from a staggering 49.4 percent in 2000 – as women’s access to health care has progressed dramatically. Women’s life expectancy has increased, and women now outlive men by about three years.

“Education is the path to everything, to success for the future of the country,” says Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, a nongovernmental organization based in Kabul, Afghanistan; and New York. “And girls are being supported by their families. That’s a huge success.”

“Seeing where we came from, it’s a totally different country, a different society,” she says. “People’s mind-sets have changed.”

With the Afghan National Solidarity Program, the country’s flagship development program, came mandated women’s inclusion, and participation in local governance issues “in ways never done before,” says Dyan Mazurana, associate research professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and research director at the Feinstein International Center.

Under the Taliban government, women weren’t allowed to work, let alone leave the home without a male relative.

But complacency could undermine efforts to ensure that all Afghan women can enjoy their new rights, according to an Oxfam report released in December.

And oversight of aid distribution remains a serious concern. There is as yet no coordinating body for tracking and accounting for tens of millions in spending targeted at Afghan women by the Pentagon, State Department, and the US Agency for International Development, according to a Dec. 18 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

After 13 years of progress, gains are especially vulnerable now amid systematic exclusion from negotiations and pending Western withdrawal, female leaders and policy experts say.

“I think without constant vigilance by organizations and pressure by Afghans – both men and women – and international allies that women’s rights are at risk of being rolled back by powerful conservative elements in the country, including militant fundamentalist groups and warlords,” says Ms. Mazurana.

The Oxfam report, “Behind Closed Doors,” maintains that the new government and the international community must keep promises to include women more fully in negotiations on the future of Afghanistan. The report cites 11 government meetings since 2005 that lacked any women participants.

“Afghan Women’s Network has made repeated requests to be at the negotiating table because we do not want our rights to be sacrificed,” Lida Nadery, a member of the group, the largest coalition of women’s groups in the country, is quoted as saying in the report. “We are not included in any talks.... [And] no one tells us what was discussed.”

As international forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the country must not sacrifice women’s rights to reach a peace agreement, the report says.

“Without investment and further commitments to safeguard women’s rights, there is a very real risk that the hard-won gains of the last decade will be lost,” it reads.

Gains for women in the country have been supported by both Afghan women and men, and by international allies. Mazurana adds that women at the peace talks need to be Afghan women with a record of making progress on Afghan women’s rights.

Oxfam maintains that women should be involved at all levels of decisionmaking. The report calls on the government to establish the 30 percent minimum threshold for all Afghan government peace bodies.

Ms. Naderi says that as Western troops withdraw, it is important that development – and the funding for it – does not decrease.

The country has a long way to go, concedes Naderi. “But,” she says, “we’re going in the right direction.”

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