Insights and Analysis

Women’s Biggest Problems in Afghanistan

January 27, 2010

By Najla Ayubi

“I operate daily under extremely dangerous situations in the south and southwest regions of Afghanistan, especially in Helmand Province. While there, I am expected to be completely covered in a Burqa and am advised to not carry a women’s style handbag or laptop bag. My phone should be off so that it is never heard ringing. Shaking hands with men is a taboo and talking directly about women’s rights could be punishable by death. However, the secret behind my success is that I am educated and have established contacts with local elders – and I abide by all these conditions. This is why I am able to run my development projects successfully,” said an Afghan woman who recently spoke to me on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

Under the Taliban’s regime, women endured unspeakably harsh conditions and were deprived of basic rights. After the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, the hope and optimism of Afghan women was revived with a new presence of the international community and international forces, and budding support for women’s participation in social, economical, and cultural aspects of life.

Despite impressive efforts made since 2001, and some significant strides in education, in many ways things remain extremely difficult for women. While some things are better, old problems persist and new problems have presented themselves.

Findings from the chapter “Women and Society” from The Asia Foundation’s 2009 Survey of the Afghan People reveal the biggest problems Afghan women face. Education and illiteracy, tops the list, followed by lack of job opportunities and equal rights for women (see graph below).


These problems are interconnected and have reciprocal effect on each other – making lasting solutions even more difficult. According to past surveys, lack of education for women is consistently seen as the biggest problem: 41 percent in 2006, 48 percent in 2007, 45 percent in 2008, and 49 percent in 2009. Lack of employment opportunity was 10 percent in 2006, 13 percent in 2007, 24 percent in 2008, and 28 percent in 2009. However, such an increase in awareness of the problem unemployment presents to women itself might be considered as good news, as it points out that more people are beginning to consider employment of women first as something normal and, second, as something more and more important. This also shows that there is increased awareness within Afghan families that employment opportunity for “their” female members is important, and linked to education, since better educated women can get better – and higher paying – jobs.

Given the country’s current social, political, cultural, and economical situation, there are a variety of factors that exacerbate these problems.

An Afghan woman polls local villagers for The Asia Foundation’s Afghan survey.

An Afghan woman polls local villagers for The Asia Foundation’s Afghan survey.

Illiteracy and Education

Afghanistan’s literacy rate is very low compared to other countries. In Afghanistan, only 23.5 percent of the population above 15 years old is literate, while the rate for women is even worse at 12.6 percent. At 36 percent, Afghanistan’s enrollment of girls in primary schools is low compared with 90.4 percent in Iran, 67 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 62 percent in Pakistan.

In spite of such low figures, Afghanistan has experienced a few major achievements in the education sector for women, including the adoption of certain guarantees in the constitution (Article 44) regarding development of balanced education for women; the enrollment of 2.2 million girls in primary schools (unprecedented in Afghanistan’s history); and permission to establish higher education institutes in specialized fields and basic literacy schools (Article 46). However, many obstacles lie ahead, such as discrimination on the basis of sex, patriarchy, and male domination in the society; local traditions and discrimination against women’s education; lack of female schools in villages; lack of proper education infrastructure; lack of personal security; and lack of female teachers, to name a few. There are also socio-cultural beliefs that consider education unnecessary or even hazardous for women, further preventing girls from attending schools. Even in seminaries, the number of female students is very low due to lack of interest in women’s education and lack of female religious teachers.

Lack of access to education remains one of the biggest challenges women face in Afghanistan, according to The Asia Foundation’s poll.

Lack of access to education remains one of the biggest challenges women face in Afghanistan, according to The Asia Foundation’s Afghan poll.

Other impediments that hinder women’s education are violence against women, underage marriages, forced marriages, economic problems, and marriage as a solution to family disputes (known as baad).

Lack of Job Opportunities

Up from 31 percent in 2008 to 35 percent in 2009, unemployment is cited as the second biggest problem Afghan women face. A separate study indicated that only a quarter of government positions are occupied by women.

Although Article 48 of the constitution stipulates that every Afghan has the right to work, the government does not pave the way for women to gain positions in government. Other factors also contribute to unemployment, such as low literacy rates and professional skills among women; disagreement over a woman’s right to work outside of the house (in this survey, only 67 percent of respondents agree with a woman’s right to work outside of the house, while 23 percent do not agree); issues over women working in an office or environment with men; poor security; and women’s historical economic dependence on men. Parents often hold a double standard regarding children’s education, with more attention given to the education of boys than to that of girls.

Support for women’s basic rights should not be limited to written guarantees, but should be used as legal basis for more balanced development of women alongside men. On the eve of the establishment of a new government and a second international forum on Afghanistan tomorrow, January 28 in London, the government should focus on long-term programs to improve women’s education, and to create a monitoring mechanism that enforces gender equality in the education sector.

Public awareness programs that reinforce the Islamic notion that all men and women should have access to knowledge in order to mitigate discrimination against women are critical. Such programs could be implemented by religious scholars and clergies, civil society organizations, or government institutions.

Better training for female teachers on a local level must be implemented, as well as additional assurance and encouragement to parents to send their daughters to school. Vocational training for women should also be considered to enhance skills that would increase employment opportunities.

Without safety, however, improvements for Afghan women are remote. The international community must work alongside the Afghan government to restore security, especially for women and girls so that they can gain greater access to education and play a larger role in stabilizing their country.

Najla Ayubi is a Program Director for Law, Human Rights, and Women’s Empowerment with The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan and is a former judge and a former commissioner with the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. She can be reached at

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Empower Women


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