Does the Ghani Administration Mean a Greater Role for Women in the Afghan Economy?
November 19, 2014
At his inauguration on September 29, President Ashraf Ghani thanked his wife, Rula, for her support during the campaign, and to the surprise of many in Afghanistan, promised Afghans that she would continue her work advocating on behalf of the nation’s 750,000 internally displaced people. Having previously served as the country’s finance minister in 2002-2004 and later worked with the World Bank and other multilateral institutions in state-rebuilding efforts, President Ghani is keenly aware of the role of women in effecting broad social and economic change. It was thus only natural for him to acknowledge his wife’s loyalty and tenacity.
President Ghani now faces the steep challenge of marshaling domestic and international resources for positive social and economic change. Right now, with 36 percent of its population below the national poverty line and a gross national income (GNI) of $700 per capita, Afghanistan remains a deeply impoverished country – 13 years after the toppling of the Taliban government. Nearly three quarters of Afghans reside in rural areas and are largely employed in agricultural production, yet agriculture contributed to only a fifth of the national GDP. Those who do work in the private sector find themselves facing a toxic business climate that was ranked by the World Bank at nearly the bottom (183rd) of 189 countries surveyed, in terms of ease of doing business. Meanwhile, conflict and insecurity continue to undermine the economy, preventing potential entrepreneurs and investors from having the stability they need to start and grow their businesses, and ultimately, to create jobs. As the drawdown of the U.S.-led combat mission continues through the end of the year, international news outlets like the Guardian have already reported an uptick in violence, as insurgents “test the resilience of the government’s army and police.”
These concerns are starkly reflected in The Asia Foundation’s 2014 Survey of the Afghan People. Only 21.5 percent of the 9,271 citizens surveyed reported an improvement in their economic situation since last year. More than three quarters (76.5%) reported that their economic situation was either unchanged or worse off than last year. When asked for reasons their country is moving in the wrong direction, insecurity (38.3%), corruption (24.2%), and unemployment (22.6%) were the three top issues cited, and when asked what Afghanistan’s biggest problem is at the national level, insecurity topped the list (34%), followed by corruption (28.4%). The next two most frequently cited problems were both economic issues (unemployment and a poor economy), together totaling 36.7 percent. At the local level, unemployment was the most frequently cited problem (33.1%).
Afghanistan’s fragile economy can barely afford to waste any of its resources, least of all half of its human resources and capacity. Yet that is exactly what has been happening. Women and girls in Afghanistan fall behind their male counterparts when it comes to education, literacy rates, and labor force participation. According to the World Bank, the percentage of girls to boys in primary and secondary education was 67 percent. That is, there are only two girls in school for every three boys. At the tertiary enrollment level, that number falls to just one female for every three males. Literacy rates reflect those trends, with a literacy rate for girls between ages 15-24 of only 32 percent, compared with 62 percent for boys the same ages. It’s also unsurprising then that only 16 percent of females 15 and up are in the (formal) labor force, compared to 80 percent of males. That means that more than four out of every five (84%) women (and one out of every five men) who could contribute to economic recovery do not.
But there is hope. Perceptions about women’s role in the economy are starting to change, and so too are the trends on the ground. Around two-thirds (67.8%) of Afghans say that women should be able to work outside the home, according to the Afghan Survey. In addition, the percentage of Afghans who say that female members of their family contribute to household income has increased from 13.9 percent in 2009 to 22.4 percent in 2014. In various areas of its business climate, Afghanistan has also made clear progress in recent years. For example, the World Bank’s Doing Business study documents action taken to simplify preregistration and registration formalities. (Indeed, Afghanistan is ranked an admirable 24th in starting a business). The country has also recently introduced an online national registry of notices and searches of liens on certain property, which will eventually contribute to the strengthening of lenders’ legal rights.
President Ghani has stated that, among his first reforms, he “will aim to improve the rule of law and fight corruption.” He has also been vocal about his intention to support a greater role for women in the Afghan economy. He recently tweeted: “Experience has shown that if we invest on a girl, it will change the next 5 generations. Hence, we must understand the importance of women.” His focus on reform and on drawing women into the country’s transformation augurs well for the country’s future. Time will tell if the rest of his fellow citizens can embrace his strategy toward prosperity.
Katherine Loh is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Economic Development Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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