Insights and Analysis

Survey Reveals Mixed Results for Women’s Gains in Afghanistan

November 18, 2015

By Barbara Rodriguez

Earlier this month, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi was awarded the prestigious WISE prize for her work to improve Afghan girls’ access to quality education. Since the 1990s, Dr. Yacoobi has worked tirelessly to advance equal access to education through underground home schools for girls, teacher trainings, and learning centers for women. In 2012, The Asia Foundation honored her achievements with the Lotus Leadership Award. The findings in this year’s just-released Survey of the Afghan People underscore why this work is so critical for ensuring the social and economic opportunities that education delivers, and for the role it plays in advancing women’s rights and gender equality in both the private and the public spheres.

While the survey, which has been conducted since 2004, indicates a slight drop in overall support for women’s rights this year, the majority of respondents – both women and men – continue to report that women should have the right to work outside the home and be able to access the same educational opportunities as men, and disagree with harmful traditional practices that violate the rights of women and girls.


The slight drop – and the rest of the survey findings – should be contextualized. This year’s data suggest the lowest level of optimism in the past decade and the highest level of fear for personal safety. This is not terribly surprising, as 2015 was a tremendously challenging year in Afghanistan. And while important gains were made for women’s political participation, including four women appointed to cabinet positions in the National Unity Government, the brutal murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old student of Islamic law, in March (about two months before the survey was conducted) by a mob of men in the streets of Kabul must also play a role in shaping perceptions of the rights and opportunities available for women. In this context, a sharper decline in support for women’s rights might have been expected.

While the survey conveys most Afghans are in favor of women’s rights, it also points to a significant relationship between respondents’ gender and their attitudes. That is, women are more likely to support women’s rights than men. For example, across all regions, age groups, and ethnicities, women (52.9%) are more likely than men (32.9%) to support women’s equal access to political leadership positions. Women (72.9%) are also much more likely than men (53.8%) to say that women should be allowed to work outside the home.

This dynamic is not unique to Afghanistan. A 22-country study by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project likewise found a double-digit gender gap concerning whether women should have the same rights as men, with women in Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan, Indonesia, and Pakistan far more likely to support women’s rights than men.

The Afghan survey also points to a link between respondents’ attitudes on women’s rights and their level of education, with more educated women and men more likely to hold gender equitable attitudes. The following figures illustrate this relationship (not causal):

  • 41.4 percent of Afghans with higher education strongly agree that women can be governor of a province, compared to 23.5 percent who never attended school.
  • 35.3 percent of Afghans with higher education strongly agree that women can run for the office of president, compared to 21.3 percent who never attended school.
  • 66.1 percent of Afghans with higher education strongly support higher education opportunities for women, compared to 40.6 percent who never attended school.
  • 74.5 percent of Afghans with higher education agreed with the idea of women working outside the home, compared to 61.2 percent who never attended school.
  • 75.6 percent of Afghans with higher education agreed that a daughter is entitled to miras (inheritance), compared to 59.5 percent who never attended school.

The survey also found that women with at least some level of schooling were significantly more likely to work, and seek work, outside the home.

Interestingly, and perhaps relatedly, an association (again, not causal) also emerged between gender equitable attitudes and watching television. In fact, Afghans who reported watching television appear more likely to favor a higher ideal age for women’s marriage, accept more liberal attire for women in public, and be more supportive of the idea of women working outside the home and pursuing education.

In the face of this connection between education and support for women’s rights, not to mention the myriad other benefits that result from education, it is troubling that among women and men, limited access to education remains the most frequently cited problem facing women in Afghanistan, and only 23.2 percent of Afghans say that education in their area has improved. To be sure, if we look back to 2002, when barely a million students were enrolled in school, virtually none of whom were girls, there has been significant progress. More recent figures from the Afghan Ministry of Education estimate that 8.4 million students are currently enrolled in primary and secondary schools, 39 percent of which are girls (though this figure is debated).

There is still, however, far to go and much more to gain. To this end, it is critical to continue supporting the work and building on the achievements of women like Dr. Yacoobi. Sustained efforts to expand high-quality educational opportunities for girls and boys are the key to transforming individual lives and entire societies; clearly, the increased economic opportunities that emerge for women and men are just one of many ways that equal access to education can improve the landscape of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Barbara Rodriguez is an assistant director in The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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