In The News

Debating a Non-Negotiable Future for Afghan Women

September 8, 2010

Wars are difficult to be dispassionate about, but the Afghanistan war is further complicated by questions over human rights and what is the most principled course. At the vanguard of peace-making and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan are women who are often used as a symbol for both sides of the debate: why coalition forces should leave and why they should stay. Today, women in Afghanistan face a horrific choice: cruelty of war or cruelty from the Taliban.

Thanks in part to Time Magazine‘s July 29 cover story and a recent report from Human Rights Watch, the war’s effects on Afghan women’s future are creeping back into the international discourse. As the U.S. debates plans for a responsible end to military engagement in Afghanistan, sustaining the rights of women must be a central priority to any strategy.

There’s been some criticism about the Time Magazine cover – a stark image of an 18-year girl whose nose was severed by the Taliban as punishment for fleeing an arranged marriage – and its title “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” The fact that the incident happened when U.S. troops were in Afghanistan was not lost in many circles. Indeed, much of that argument rings true: women’s rights have sadly been more nominal than actual since 2002. Despite Articles 22 and 83 of the Afghan constitution, which now proclaim gender equity and guaranteed women’s representation in parliament, respectively, progress has been slow-moving. Nearly 79 percent of Afghan women are illiterate today, and only 15 percent have access to a formal education. Despite strides made in providing better maternal health, women give birth to an average of seven children and live only to an average age of 45 years. And women increasingly face barbaric acts in areas where the Taliban have resurged and, according to the United Nations, over 87 percent of Afghan women suffer from domestic violence.

Despite such dire conditions, Afghan women are surprisingly optimistic about their futures, especially those who have been engaged with women’s empowerment NGOs. Women for Women International’s 2009 report found that nearly 85 percent of women interviewed were optimistic about the future of Afghanistan. This contrasts starkly contrasts with the general gloom of and about the country. (The Asia Foundation’s poll last year found that 42 percent of respondents, men and women, said that the country is moving in the right direction.)

This general sense of optimism resonates with my own seven-year history living in, working in, and traveling in the country. The women I’ve met focus on the opportunities that exist in small businesses, journalism, education, and politics. But they also emphasize that the international community needs to stay committed to Afghanistan’s development so that women’s opportunities become mainstream; they acknowledge that things take time, but say they do not want to be given up on. Afghan culture, they remind me, is not immutable. Many recount stories from the 1960s and 1970s when women accounted for as many as 70 percent of teachers, and approximately 50 percent of civil servants. Back then, equality for women was a mark of modernity; Afghan leaders knew that no society could move forward when only half of its population was engaged.

A negotiated end to this war will likely be necessary. Afghan women do not want war, but they also do not want a hasty political deal with the Taliban that would strip them of their rights. President Karzai has promised “meaningful, substantive” participation by Afghan women in the High Council For Peace so that their rights – the right to work, to participate in political life, and to education – will be nonnegotiable and, ideally, advanced further. But some are skeptical.

In planning an exit strategy from Afghanistan, the international community faces a very real moral dilemma. Women’s rights cannot be second to security or be a “bonus” element of Afghanistan’s progress; for development to be sustainable, women’s rights must be directly integrated into all security, development and economic efforts. Few argue against the need for continued U.S. diplomatic and aid delivery after troops leave, but we need to be honest about the security and political conditions necessary to meet the logistical needs and vagaries of development work. Basic human security is the foundation for any progress, and for women to make strides in education, economic livelihoods, and political participation, they need to feel secure in their homes – and with their national leadership.

As a nation, the U.S. is tired after almost nine years of war, but we are just beginning to support women in Afghanistan. Women’s empowerment should not come second to security, and their rights should not be sacrificed for peace. We can help by assisting the courageous organizations working every day to promote the cause of women and gender equity in Afghanistan. We can also help by keeping Afghan women fresh in the minds of our leaders in Washington – especially as President Obama’s end-of-year review on Afghanistan nears.

Katherine Brown, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, is a Truman National Security Project fellow, former communications advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and former Asia Foundation staff member.

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