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2018 Survey of Afghan People Shows Women’s Rights are Complicated

December 5, 2018

By Farrah Azeem Khan

Although the current Afghan government is publicly committed to women’s rights and empowerment, women continue to face significant barriers to exercising those rights. It was not always thus. From the 1930s to the early 70s, Afghanistan was relatively liberal—to the point that Kabul was often referred to as the Paris of Central Asia. In subsequent decades, however, women experienced significant repression, culminating in large-scale violations of women’s rights and violence against women under the Taliban, who enforced strict gender segregation and the elimination of women from the public sphere.

Since the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001, women have made substantial gains. Women’s rights were enshrined in the national constitution of 2003, and successive national governments have vowed to protect women’s rights, eliminate violence against women, and support women’s economic empowerment and political participation. The Afghan constitution and the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women afford rights, protections, and opportunities to women that are unprecedented in the region and among other Muslim countries.

According to The Asia Foundation’s 2018 Survey of the Afghan People, women’s rights and participation in Afghanistan are improving, but very slowly. The broadest and longest-running nationwide poll of Afghan attitudes, the Survey has gathered the opinions of more than 112,000 men and women since 2004, providing a unique longitudinal portrait of evolving public perceptions of security, the economy, governance and government services, elections, the media, women’s issues, and migration.

The 2018 findings are encouraging when it comes to women’s access to justice. More women than men (21.8% vs. 16.4%) reported bringing family disputes to court, the Huquq Department, or the local shura or jirga, progress that can be partly attributed to three agencies of the Afghan government—the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, and the police—which have established specialized units to provide support services to women in cases of violence and civil disputes. Media and public awareness campaigns led by civil society organizations and international donors are also making women more aware of their rights. In many ways, this progress is a major collective achievement of grassroots activists, CSOs, the Afghan government, and the international community since 2001.

Waning support for traditional practices such as baad and baddal is another bright spot for women (figure 1), one of the few areas related to women’s rights that has improved each year since 2004. Baad is the practice of giving away a daughter to settle a debt or a dispute between families. Baddal is the exchange of daughters in marriage between families, mostly for economic reasons. Both these practices neglect women’s choice in marriage. This year, just 9.5% of respondents agree that baad is an acceptable practice, down from 12.0% in 2017 and 18.0% in 2016, and the same downward trend holds true for baddal, which just 25.2% of respondents find acceptable in 2018, down from 29.1% in 2017 and 31.8% in 2016. Conversely, the acceptance of miras—a daughter’s right to inheritance from her father—has continued to climb, with 90.2% of Afghans now agreeing that women are entitled to inherit. And despite a long tradition of child brides in Afghanistan, some 36.4% of men and 29.0% of women in 2018 say the ideal age for a girl to marry is 18 years.

FIG. 1: Q-69. Tell me, do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements? (a) The practice of baad is acceptable. (b) The practice of baddal is acceptable. (Percent who strongly or somewhat agree.)

Support for gender equality in education has grown, from 82.3% in 2017 to 84.0% this year. Support has also grown for girls’ primary education, from 87.5% in 2017 to 89.7% this year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are the greatest supporters of equal access to education for girls (88.4%), although support among men (79.6%) is also higher than in years past.

According to women (figure 2), their most significant challenges, in ranked order, are illiteracy or lack of education (40.9%), unemployment (26.7%), domestic violence (19.2%), forced marriage (12.5%), lack of rights (12.5%), and poverty (11.3%). Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, currently estimated at about 31% of the population 15 years of age or older. The UNDP estimates female literacy at about 31.7% of adults. UNICEF reports that 3.7 million school-age children are out of school—60% of them girls. According to the 2016–17 Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, the national unemployment level currently stands at about 24%, and more than 54.5% of the population lives below the poverty line on less than a dollar a day.

FIG. 2: Q-7. What, if anything, is the biggest problem facing women in this area today? What is the next-biggest problem?

Overall, support for women in politics and leadership positions has slightly declined (figure 3), even though a record number of women stood for office in the October parliamentary elections. Support for women serving on community development councils fell from 69.7% in 2017 to 67.5% this year. Support for women as provincial governors also dropped slightly, from 55.4% in 2017 to 53.1% this year. Support for women as CEOs of large companies fell from 54.6% in 2017 to 52.0% this year. Support has also declined for women’s right to vote, from 89.0% in 2017 to 87.6% in 2018.

FIG. 3: Q-75. Do you agree or disagree that it is acceptable for women to have access to these leadership roles? Strongly or somewhat? (a) Member of a community development council. (b) Governor of a province. (c) CEO of a large company. (Percent who strongly or somewhat agree.)

Taken together, these worrisome trends will alarm activists who have worked for years to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan. Before the October 2018 parliamentary elections, women held 27.7 % of seats in the national parliament, 0.7 points higher than the 27% constitutional quota. There are real fears, however, that women’s hard-won gains in Afghanistan may be in jeopardy following news of the peace negotiations with the Taliban and the government’s offer of a generous peace package.

Local, national, and international activists and organizations must work as hard as ever for women’s rights and empowerment in Afghanistan. The Foundation’s 2018 Survey of the Afghan People provides valuable data that can be used by the Afghan government, the international community, researchers, and the media to support evidence-based policymaking and improve the public debate about women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Farrah Azeem Khan is director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Afghanistan. She can be reached at farrahazeem.khan@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Survey of the Afghan People

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HIGHLIGHTS ACROSS ASIA

Afghanistan in 2018: A Survey of the Afghan People

The longest-running and broadest nationwide survey of Afghan attitudes and opinions.

Afghanistan in 2018: A Survey of the Afghan People