Insights and Analysis

As Afghanistan Transitions, Gains for Women’s Rights at Stake

June 6, 2012

By Meredith Ludlow

More than 10 years of grim news from Afghanistan has made it easy to overlook the positive stories from the country – especially when the negative news is overwhelmingly preferred by campaigning politicians and media outlets to garner attention-grabbing headlines. But beyond the sound bites, real progress has been achieved by and for Afghanistan’s women, including broader freedoms, increased access to education, greater economic clout, and improved civic participation. You just have to look beyond front page headlines to see them.

Afghan girls

With 42 percent of the Afghan population under the age of 15, educated mothers will help to ensure that the next generation of Afghans – both male and female – value the critical role that women play in society. Photo by Susan Marx.

Today, 37 percent of all girls, or nearly 3 million, are enrolled in school. Women now comprise 27 percent of Kabul University’s student body, 30 percent of Afghanistan’s school teachers, and 15 percent of university professors. In addition, women currently represent 35 percent of the country’s workforce and are playing a greater role in politics. On average, 40 percent of women have participated in elections since 2004. Further, constitutional changes now mandate that 27 percent of seats in the Afghan National Assembly and 25 percent in the provincial councils are reserved for women, with 24 percent of all Community Development Councils already occupied by females in rural Afghanistan. Just a few years ago, women’s representation in these areas was nearly non-existent.

The Asia Foundation’s latest Survey of the Afghan People shows that attitudes among Afghans regarding women are also improving. According to the survey, 85 percent of Afghans responded that men and women should have equal access to education, with 81 percent of men in support. Of those polled, 79 percent said that women should be allowed to stand up for their individual rights, and 85 percent indicated that women should be able to vote for themselves. Additionally, 62 percent said that women should be able to work outside the home. These figures underscore concrete and significant advancements for women over the past decade in Afghanistan.

Judge Najla Ayubi should know. During the Taliban regime, the now leading Afghan Women’s Rights activist and country director for Open Society Afghanistan, was forced out of her prominent role as judge and prosecutor and back into the home.

“Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women’s position in society has changed for the better. We are not the women we were then,” she told me recently. “In the past 10 years, women have fought and struggled to secure access to justice and their fundamental rights. As a result, Afghan women have been able to lobby within parliament to get approval for the Elimination of Violence Against Women law for the first time in Afghanistan’s history. This progress could not have been achieved without the contributions of the international community to help protect and promote the rights of Afghan women and girls.”

However, this progress is now under threat. As NATO leaders met at the end of May in Chicago to discuss transitioning security responsibilities to Afghanistan by 2014, President Obama cautioned that the “Taliban is still a robust enemy, and the gains are still fragile.”  Among the gains most at risk are those hard-won by Afghan women.

Illiteracy and lack of education and rights remain the biggest problems facing Afghan women, according to The Asia Foundation survey, although the percentage of respondents citing these barriers has fallen sharply from 49 percent in 2009 to 25 percent in 2011. The most significant source of pessimism relates to security concerns. In fact, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of Afghans who agree that women should be allowed to work outside the home, and survey organizers attribute this to increasing fears for personal safety. This will only be compounded should the security situation deteriorate when NATO support to Afghan security forces ends. While the number of survey respondents who sympathize with Taliban motivations reached their lowest levels in 2011 at 29 percent, concerns still loom that when NATO leaves, women’s rights will be sacrificed for the sake of peace negotiations with the militants.

The stakes are high. Research shows that women serve as the catalyst for many positive changes in society. Giving girls access to education, for example, improves their long-term economic prospects and helps lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Educated women are more likely to participate in political and civic life, so they have a voice in shaping the larger policy decisions that affect them, their families, and their country. With 42 percent of the Afghan population under the age of 15, educated mothers will help to ensure that the next generation of Afghans – both male and female – value the critical role that women play in society.

So how can we as members of the international community help Afghan women maintain the great strides they’ve made?  First, recognize that the problems facing Afghan women will not be tackled in a matter of months or even a few years. Over 90 percent of Afghanistan’s budget comes from foreign aid, and the dramatic reduction in assistance to coincide with the 2014 NATO drawdown will greatly impact the nation. Second, leverage and support the vast network of NGOs and development organizations working on-the-ground in Afghanistan to tackle these issues. Seek out those that employ a holistic approach, working in both urban and rural locations, with strong local partners at the central and community levels. Identify organizations helping to educate not only women and girls, but boys and men. And consider supporting groups focused on data collection and analysis. Afghanistan’s last census took place in 1979, and there is a dearth of reliable data necessary to inform policy-makers in their decisions. One reason I support The Asia Foundation through my work with their Lotus Circle is because they successfully utilize all three of these crucial approaches. This week at a ceremony in New York, we’ll be presenting awards to partners who have made a difference in educating Afghan girls and women.

Just last week, Judge Ayubi emailed me, writing excitedly that she had just received her driver’s permit. In 2000, an Afghan woman could not go to the grocery store by herself. In 2012, this same woman is driving solo around Kabul’s chaotic, bustling streets. Let’s make sure that the road to progress does not end for Judge Ayubi and the rest of the women of Afghanistan.

Meredith Ludlow is an advisor to The Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle, a community committed to the empowerment of women and girls across Asia. Judge Najla Ayubi previously worked in The Asia Foundation’s Kabul office, where she directed the Law, Human Rights, and Women’s Empowerment program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. The improvement in status of women in Afghanistan is commendable.

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