Empowering the Women of Afghanistan
M. Ashraf Haidari «View Bio

After thirty years of war and destruction, Afghanistan remains on the bottom of the human development index, with the worst social indicators among women, who together with children constitute more than half of our population. Beyond protective security concerns, the only way to empower women in Afghanistan’s traditional society is through enhancing their access to primary and higher education inside or outside the country.

In many countries of what is now the developed world, women were not fully enfranchised until the beginning of the last century. This development came with their ability to acquire higher education and become financially independent. For a relatively undeveloped country such as Afghanistan, there is a long way to go to catch up. Indeed, Afghanistan’s economy could hardly grow on a sustainable basis without half of our population contributing to the reconstruction and development process of the country.

In spite of much effort by various international organizations to promote gender equity in Afghanistan, there are very few programs that help Afghan women gain higher education, particularly abroad. One key exception is the US-based Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, which has managed to enlist the support of a dozen American universities to grant four-year scholarships to qualified Afghan girls with leadership skills to study in the United States. Such programs need to be funded generously in order to meet Afghanistan’s urgent demand for female leadership and to ensure equality between women and men under our progressive constitution. With Afghan women educated, their children will be healthy and educated too, and able to contribute to the productive labor force needed for Afghanistan to integrate into the global economy.

Afghan women welcome the renewed commitment by the United States to our country’s stabilization, not only militarily but also through increased social and economic development assistance. President Barack Obama firmly committed to protecting the basic human rights of Afghan women and children when he announced the new US strategy for Afghanistan on March 27, 2009.  For Afghan women, no human right is more fundamental than the right to an education inside or outside our country. Prophet Mohammed (PBU), whose wife was a businesswoman and equivalent of a female CEO today, often told his followers: “Seek knowledge, even unto China,” meaning go in quest of education wherever possible. 

Over the past eight years, since the gender apartheid of the Taliban regime was ended, Afghan women have made considerable progress, participating in the political life of our country. From the Bonn Agreement, to the drafting, reviewing, and finally adopting of Afghanistan’s new Constitution, women have been involved every step of the way. Afghan women played a key part in each process, from the Emergency and Constitutional Loya Jirgas to the 2004 presidential and 2005 parliamentary elections. Their participation in these historic processes have not only helped establish Afghanistan’s state institutions but also ensured that women become equal partners to men in leading these institutions forward to serve our nation.

The results of women’s participation in creating our modern Constitution can be found in its text. Article 22 affirms women’s equality to men before the law, and Article 83 guarantees women 27 percent of the seats in the Lower House and 17 percent of the Upper House seats in our parliament. Beyond their role in shaping the Constitution, Afghan women campaigned hard in the national elections. More than 40 percent of the registered Afghan women turned out to vote in the presidential elections and more than 50 percent risked their lives to vote in the parliamentary elections.

Afghan women enjoy the deep respect, support and commitment of President Hamid Karzai to their Constitutional rights and the protection of those rights through various mechanisms established in the government so far. President Karzai has called into question the constitutionality of the recently passed Shi’ite family law, which discriminates against women. The law allows men to restrict women’s movement, except in emergency situations, or to engage in marital sex without consent. These articles clearly contradict Afghanistan’s progressive constitution, which provides women and men with equal rights. On April 19 in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, President Karzai stated, “I have instructed—in consultation with the clergy of the country—the Ministry of Justice that the law be revised and that any article that is not in keeping with the Afghan constitution and Islamic Sharia must be removed from this law.”

Despite landmark achievements by Afghan women, the challenges facing them are many and daunting.  Today, Afghan women list insecurity as the number one obstacle to their progress in any area. Eight years on, the Taliban have expanded their presence in areas where the government is absent, particularly in the countryside where most women live and where the terrorists daily carry out suicide attacks against military and soft targets. The Taliban have targeted and killed female teachers, and burned down hundreds of girls’ schools. They will continue their campaign of terror in Afghanistan so long as their leadership remains intact in Pakistan where they find safe havens, arms, and ideological support.

Insecurity in Afghanistan is also due to a lack of international assistance resources that has resulted in weak state institutions. Without capacity and resources, most of Afghan state institutions—including those focused on women—are unable to enforce the adopted legal framework, provide basic public services, and generate employment for the people. 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 nationwide. 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. 

Yet, it is the justice sector that remains the most under-reformed, due to a lack of international attention and resources, from the outset. It is unfortunate to know that Afghanistan’s 30 million population is served by only 60 female judges, 35 prosecutors, 70 attorneys, and very few defense attorneys. More than half of these women hold a four-year degree which may not be in a legal field. Many of these women lack offices with the equipment they need to work.  

Women are the pillars of any society, including Afghanistan. By focusing attention to women’s basic needs, such as education, more than half of our population can be empowered to make significant contributions to Afghanistan’s long-term development. Afghan women have done their part over the eight years since the fall of the Taliban, and will continue to do so as long as we stand by them. The international community must continue to do its part through partnerships—such as the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women—to help ensure gender equality in the Afghan society, now and into the future.
M. Ashaf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is haidari@embassyofafghanistan.org