Status of Women in Afghanistan
January 21, 2009
Historically, Afghan women have always been marginalised and accorded subordinate status. The position of women in the family and society has been shaped by many factors and there are strong cultural and historical roots of gender discrimination. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and traditional society that has been governed along tribal lines and by a weak central state. In addition, the long years of war and violence in the country, and the resulting unstable political and economic situation, have had a particularly severe impact on women. There were some attempts to introduce reforms but these were often met by strong tribal and religious opposition and resistance from conservative patriarchal forces, and later undermined during the civil war in the early 1990s when Mujahideen leaders fought for control. The rights of women were eroded even further when the Taliban came into power in 1996. With such fundamentalist religious forces taking the dominant position in society, the position of women suffered a major set back and even took a retrogressive turn.
During the rule of the Taliban women were treated worse than in any other time. They were forbidden to work, leave the house without a male escort, or seek medical help from a male doctor, and they were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, even covering their eyes. Women who were doctors and teachers were forced to leave their work and sit at home, and girls were forbidden to go to school as a result of the prevalent ultraconservative policies of that period.
Since the present regime came to power in 2001, the political and cultural position of Afghan women has shown improvement to some extent. A robust policy framework has been put in place by the government for the welfare of women. Notable among the core strategic documents that make up this framework are the Afghanistan Compact, Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), and National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA). These developments have been successful in keeping the issue of women’s empowerment high on the country’s development agenda.
As other commentators have noted, “The Afghan government has removed severe discriminatory laws against women; ratified a constitution that promotes non-discrimination; and facilitated women’s unprecedented participation in national elections through civic education, voting and candidacy”. There have been some notable improvements in the participation of women in public life, including in the Interim Administration, Emergency Loya Jirga, and national and local elections. 27 percent of seats in the National Assembly and 25 percent of seats in Provincial Councils are occupied by women; indeed, Afghanistan now has one of the highest rates of female participation in the National Parliament in the region. A dedicated Ministry for Women’s Affairs has been established to lead gender equality initiatives across government. Women now constitute 26 percent of civil servants, 24 percent of employees in the government-run media and 21 percent in private media companies. Of 17 Afghan ambassadors in other countries, two are women.
Achievements are also being made at the local level, largely because of the growing focus within the government and among donors on providing aid assistance directly to communities. Women, who have traditionally not been consulted on community issues, are now being included in forums to determine village and neighbourhood development priorities, and to design and implement projects to address their problems. The increased presence and visibility of women, in particular through the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) which has achieved 24 percent participation of women in Community Development Councils, has been considered a positive step.
This chapter presents an analysis of the most critical problems facing women in Afghanistan and the impact of government interventions to improve their status. We also discuss the extent of women’s political participation at national and local levels, and assess women’s perceptions of the effectiveness of local governance institutions in addressing their issues. Our discussion is based on the findings of The Asia Foundation’s public opinion poll, Afghanistan in 2008: A Survey of the Afghan People, and includes comparisons with the 2006 and 2007 surveys.
Read more of “Status of Women in Afghanistan” in State Building, Security, and Social Change in Afghanistan: Reflections on a Survey of the Afghan People.
Harjot Kaur is a Consultant for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan and a gender specialist with over 16 years experience in the Indian government. Najla Ayubi is a Technical Advisor with The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan and a former lawyer, judge, and Commissioner of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) of Afghanistan. Below is an excerpt from their chapter, “Status of Women in Afghanistan” in the recently released State Building, Security, and Social Change in Afghanistan: Reflections on a Survey of the Afghan People.
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