In Afghanistan, Provincial-Level Institutions Critical to Protecting and Advancing Women’s Rights
December 11, 2013
Five months from now, Afghanistan will enter a critical juncture of transition and election, in a dynamic context where large parts of the country are now increasingly controlled by Taliban shadow governments.
The upcoming elections are expected to signal how the progress of the past decade will hold up in the coming years, especially for women’s rights and governance. In December of last year, the acting head of the Department of Women’s Affairs (DoWA) in Laghman province was assassinated, six months after her predecessor was killed in an attack attributed to the Taliban. In early September of this year, a woman member of parliament who was held captive for about four weeks was finally freed by the Taliban in exchange for several detained militants.
However, despite the insecurity and threats that women leaders face, thousands of women are politically and socially active in Afghanistan in various capacities. We now have a constitution that guarantees women’s equal rights with a minimum of 25 percent parliament seats allotted for women (although a controversial change in July lowered the proportion of provincial council seats reserved for women from 25 to 20 percent); increased support for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs set up to advance women’s rights and empowerment across Afghanistan; and the adoption of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) and the National Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA) 2008-2018, which focuses on six sectors that are critical in accelerating the improvement of women’s status in the country. And, according to The Asia Foundation’s just-launched 2013 Survey of the Afghan People, women’s institutions are leading in confidence: of those respondents in the survey who were asked to identify the first and foremost institution/place women can go to resolve their issues, 49 percent identified the Department of Women’s Affairs (DoWAs are the provincial-level line departments of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) that operate in all 34 provinces) as the first place women go to resolve and address their problems.
Yet, women’s participation at the subnational governance level remains bleak: less than 20 percent of the over 330,000 Afghan government employees are women. The absence of women’s leadership at the local level limits the extent to which their opinions and priorities factor into local development processes.
The MoWA is one of the few ministries to have decentralized its offices to the provincial level DoWA offices. These DoWAs operate in highly insecure environments and, in many cases, those holding local government positions are not aware of the national policies and laws that exist on women’s rights. DoWA offices report that the greatest areas of concern in their provinces are the pervasive lack of access to services for women, such as health care clinics and safe, secure places where women can go in cases of extreme violence. They also report a lack of women doctors, teachers, nurses, as well as access to markets and economic opportunities.
The 2014 transition process provides a strategic window of opportunity to leverage the role of MoWA and its 34 DoWAs to play a stronger leadership role in avoiding a reversal of the gains made to date and in fostering significant progress toward gender equality and women’s empowerment –the two goals of NAPWA. MoWA is the key internal advocate within the government of Afghanistan and serves as a public voice to increase awareness of both the problems women face and women’s potential to contribute to national development, build broad-based public support for women’s rights, and ensure women are included in public decision-making. However, DoWAs currently don’t have robust interactions, strategic planning and coordination with MoWA and other provincial level authorities, and they lack essential capacities, technical skills, and resources, all of which is coupled with security challenges, weak governance, limited financial resources, and weak service delivery.
This year, The Asia Foundation launched the Ministry of Women’s Affairs Organizational Restructuring and Empowerment (MORE) project, with support from USAID, to help strengthen the capacity of the ministry and its provincial DoWAs in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment in Afghanistan and to assist the delivery of the MoWA mandate as a policy-making ministry. This is primarily approached by assessing and analyzing the existing capacity of MoWA and the DoWAs to implement their mandated functions within the ministry on policy, gender mainstreaming, communications and public outreach, and monitoring and evaluation.
To address the lack of an educated female workforce at the Ministry, and to strengthen human capacities and to train and build existing skill sets at the Ministry, MORE is providing 100 scholarships for both MoWA and DoWA staff to be taken up for specific skill development courses at the national level.
These DoWAs will be critical to making sure that women’s gains are not lost and that their voices are heard at the local level to ensure their priorities and rights are advanced through 2014 and beyond.
Dr. Sheeba Härmä is former chief of party for The Asia Foundation’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs Organizational Restructuring and Empowerment (MORE) Project. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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