More than nine years after Taliban militants were driven from power in Kabul, women in Afghanistan are making slow but steady progress in their effort to secure basic rights.
The Taliban era, as is widely known, took Afghan women back to the Dark Ages. From there, it’s been a long climb back to the point where a woman can entertain even the slimmest hope of realizing her potential. And even now the progress achieved over the last nine years remains vulnerable to backsliding.
One of the foremost accomplishments of the post-Taliban period is the appearance of women in positions of political power. The first female provincial governor and district mayor in Afghan history are currently serving their constituencies, and the ministries of public health and women's affairs are led by women, as is Afghanistan's Independent Commission on Human Rights. At the same time, the Afghan parliament features a higher percentage of female representation at 27.3 percent than the legislatures of the world’s most established democracies, including the US Congress (15.2 percent) and British Parliament (19.7 percent).
More broadly, a record number of girls and women are attending schools and universities. Of the total 4.8 million children in grades one through six, 36.6 percent are girls. The number of girls in high school almost doubled from 2007 to 2008 (the last year for which there are reliable statistics) from 67,900 to 136,621 students. Some 8,944 university students graduated in Afghanistan in 2008. Of them, 1,734 were female.
Public health also has experienced vast improvements over the past nine years. Up to 80 percent of the Afghan population now has access to basic health care, up from just 8 percent in 2001. More than 1,650 professional midwives are employed by the ministry of public health, providing health and childbirth services across Afghanistan. This has helped reduce infant mortality rates by an overall 23 percent in the post-Taliban age, that translates into roughly 80,000 newborn lives per year saved in recent years.
In addition to concrete developments that have improved the lives of Afghan women, the Afghan government is working to change public attitudes. In Afghanistan's most traditional areas, conservative social attitudes impede the progress of women. Working to lower this barrier, the Afghan Ministry of Women’s affairs is partnering with local elders and religious figures to promote attitude change with a community-centered approach. Through the National Solidarity Program, more than 22,000 Afghan women are actively participating alongside men in more than 10,000 community development councils. These bodies work to assess local needs, receive and implement grants from the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development and lead project design and implementation.
Although the progress has been encouraging, the challenges facing women remain daunting, with a general sense of insecurity listed as the top concern. The Taliban is increasingly active, targeting and killing female teachers, and burning down hundreds of girls’ schools.
Lacking capacity and resources, most of Afghan state institutions—including those focused on women—are unable to fully implement legislation, provide basic public services, and generate employment opportunities. The Afghan Ministry of Women’s affairs is a prime example of a government institution lacking both the capacity and budgetary resources to execute its broad mandate. Its annual $1.3 million budget is dwarfed by the tens of millions of dollars spent each year by non-state international organizations in Afghanistan.
One way to cement the gains already made in place, and to foster the continuing expansion of opportunities for women, is for the international community to work with Afghan officials on the implementation of the Kabul government’s national development strategy. Part of that overall strategy is a plan to help reduce violence and the oppression of Afghan women. Afghanistan’s nation-partners committed themselves last July at the Kabul Conference to channeling at least 50 percent of international assistance through Afghan government agencies. Foreign governments remain hesitant to follow through on that pledge, in large part because of corruption worries. It is a problem that can be addressed through institutional capacity building, implementation of structural reforms and increased pay for civil servants. All sides should work to eliminate existing concerns in order to strengthen the ability of Afghan women to enjoy a future full of possibilities.
M Ashraf Haidari is an international security and development analyst who works with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He formerly served as the chargé d'affaires and political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC.