Preserving Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Since 2001, Afghan women and the international community have worked to improve human rights and end the nightmarish conditions imposed by the previous Taliban regime. These efforts have resulted in some significant advances in the status of women. Conditions remain difficult, and some setbacks have occurred recently as the Taliban-led insurgency has gained strength, but the gains for women’s rights are important and need to be preserved in any future negotiated peace agreement.

Here are some signposts of progress:

  • Availability of health care has improved. Across the country clinics and hospitals have been constructed or rebuilt and more health workers have been trained. With support from international organizations the Ministry of Public Health has developed and introduced obstetric care in 20 districts, and has launched information campaigns on hygiene and maternal care.1 The national Action Plan for the Women in Afghanistan (NAPWA) strives to improve the availability of health care and medical services, especially in rural areas. It promotes the reduction of maternal mortality, improved access to family planning, and greater women’s representation in the health sector.2
  • Availability of trained midwives and birth attendants has grown. In the past Afghanistan suffered from a dearth of trained attendants and health professionals. During the Taliban era midwifery schools were shut down.3 The Ministry of Public Health (MPH) has re-opened many midwifery schools and in 2005 established a national Midwifery Education Accreditation Board to regulate and coordinate the midwifery education in the country.4 The number of trained graduates is now estimated at 2,400, nearly five times as many as during the Taliban years.5
  • Progress has been achieved in providing economic opportunities for women, primarily through the National Solidarity Program and microcredit access.  The National Solidarity Program is a decentralized locally based economic development program that provides small grants to democratically elected community councils for local projects. A quarter of the participants in the local councils are women. Small-scale microcredit programs have multiplied, providing more than 1.5 million loans in recent years. The majority of loan recipients are women. Microcredit programs not only provide women with the opportunity to earn a living outside the home but also improve their well being and sense of self worth. A recent survey of microfinance programs found 99% of women participants reporting increased self-confidence, and more than 95 per cent reporting increased mobility both inside and outside their residential area.
  • Improving access to primary education has been a major priority of the Afghan government and international donors. Enrollment numbers have increased significantly, with more than six million school children enrolled in 2008-09. This is a sixfold increase over school attendance rates during the years of Taliban rule.6 Most important has been the increase in the rate of female attendance. In 2004 44 girls attended primary school for every 100 boys. By 2008 this ratio had increased to 66 girls for every 100 boys.7
  • Since 2001 Afghan women have gained significant political rights. The Taliban completely excluded women from political participation, but in recent years women have begun to re-enter political life. The Afghan Constitution approved in 2004 establishes a quota of 25 per cent of seats in parliament for women. This is a higher rate of female participation than most of the world’s legislatures, including the Congress of the United States.
  • In August 2009, President Karzai signed a law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW). This was a significant landmark that creates a legal basis for gender equality and establishes standards for both public and private spheres of behavior related to marriage, physical abuse and access to education and other social opportunities. The challenge now will be to assure that the law is implemented, which will be difficult given Afghanistan’s atmosphere of legal impunity.

The recent ‘peace jirga’ in Kabul approved a policy of reconciliation and political bargaining with elements of the Taliban. This is a necessary step to achieve peace, but human rights concerns should not be thrown under the bus in the rush to reach a settlement. To minimize this risk, the dialogue process should be as inclusive and transparent as possible. Representatives from Afghanistan’s broad and diverse array of constituencies and civil society networks should have a role in advising and monitoring the bargaining process.

The participation of women is especially important to ensure that the reconciliation process addresses the needs of Afghan families and communities, not just the interests of political leaders and militia commanders. Female participation should include not only those who are government officials and members of parliament but also leaders and activists of community groups. Procedures for public monitoring and participation in the national reconciliation process can increase the chances that the human rights advances of recent years are not abandoned in the interest of political compromise.  An inclusive and transparent process will be more likely to produce a political settlement that has credibility and broad public support.

1 Womenkind Worldwide, “Taking Stock Update: Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On” (2008), p. 46.

2 National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA) for 2007-2017, pp. 75-78.

3 Sheena Currie, Pashtoon Azfar, Rebecca C. Flower, “A Bold new beginning for midwifery in Afghanistan”, Afghan Midwives Association, Midwifery (2007), p 226.

4 Sheena Currie, Pashtoon Azfar, Rebecca C. Flower, “A Bold New Beginning for Midwifery in Afghanistan”, Afghan Midwives Association, Midwifery (2007), p.229 -230.

5 Rosemarie Skaine, “Women in Afghanistan in the Post-Taliban Era: How lives have changed and where they stand today”, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008), p. 105.

6 Ministry of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Draft of Education Sector Strategy for the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (March 2007), (accessed 12 June 2010).

7 The World Bank, Ratio of female to male primary enrollment, (accessed 14 May 2010).

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