Notes from the Field

While Impressive, Gains for Afghan Women Must Increase

November 14, 2012

Let’s face it – the women activists of Afghanistan, along with the international community’s support, have done a pretty good job of achieving critical gains for women. For example, we have three women in our cabinet, we have almost 30 percent women in our parliament, and women in parliament are the most active participants and are even on the Defense Committee. There is a National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan, and the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law is now in place, which includes psychological abuse and sexual harassment. And, the list goes on from there.

At a recent dialogue in Turkey that the U.S. Institute of Peace arranged between Iraqi and Afghan women to exchange ideas on the 2014 security transition from NATO forces to the Afghan government, I was among the Afghan participants that were asked to describe what achievements for women’s rights we’ve been able to make so far and where the remaining gaps are. The dynamic group of Afghan women that I was with quickly listed off the gains in women’s political participation, but just as quickly, talked about how there is a rise in violence against women due to lack of proper implementation of laws, corruption, and limited awareness of women’s rights among women and men. But, when we presented to our Iraqi counterparts, their jaws literally dropped. One Iraqi participant asked: “Is this a wish list or were you actually able to achieve this?” There was disbelief that in the Afghan context – still considered one of the worst countries for women to live – we had been able to make these gains.

We’ve moved hard and fast, due in part to the international community’s focus on women’s issues in Afghanistan over the last decade. But now, as the country takes over the reigns and international troops pull out, it’s critical that we figure out how to maintain these goals – which are already at risk. For example, the just-launched 2012 Survey of the Afghan People shows that support for equal representation of men and women in political leadership positions is on the decline. Initially, support was steady (in 2006 it was 50%, in 2008, 51%), but more recently it has been declining (down to 45% in 2012). The number of those who think women should be able to work outside of the home has also been on a small but steady decline. Survey findings also reveal a substantial difference between men’s and women’s attitudes on women working outside the home: 80 percent of female respondents say women should be allowed, compared to just 55 percent of men who say so.

Recently, we’ve seen a disturbing increase in violence against women in Afghanistan, particularly honor killings and rape cases – with more than 100 in the first half of this year. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, the actual implementation of the EVAW law is still not effective. Moreover, the law is not widely understood as there is a misconception among the Afghan public that it is un-Islamic. In this year’s survey, respondents were asked if there is an organization, institution, or authority in their area where women can go to have their problem(s) resolved. Less than one in five respondents say such an organization exists, while over three quarters say there is no such organization in their area.

That said, another area of findings reveals a more hopeful sign for improving women’s gains: confidence in religious leaders remains high at 74 percent, and they rank the highest in serving the interests of Afghan society rather than their own interests (43%). This valuable information helps us to develop programs that work toward building partnerships with religious leaders and institutions who work for the development of the country and support women’s rights within an Islamic framework. Since religious leaders are trusted in their communities and have a high level of credibility, working with religious leaders on a common goal may help to improve public opinion on women’s rights and expand the space for women’s empowerment not just at the top but at all levels of society.

At the request of some of our leaders and activists on women’s rights, starting next month, from December 30 to January 4, The Asia Foundation in Kabul will host women religious scholars and activists from Egypt, UAE, and Turkey alongside Afghan religious scholars to share ideas on how to further engage with religious leaders and institutions. By working closely with these “champions of change,” we will be one step closer to not just holding onto women’s substantial gains, but to advancing women’s empowerment even more to benefit the entire society. And this won’t depend on foreign presence or troops.

Palwasha Kakar is a senior program advisor in The Asia Foundation Afghanistan office and co-author of the 2012 Survey of the Afghan People. She can be reached a pkakar@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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