Real progress has been achieved over the past decade in improving the status of Afghan women, especially in the areas of education and health care. Girls and women are now able to go to school and many are taking advantage of that opportunity. Access to health services and maternal care has improved substantially across the country. The National Solidarity Program of community-based economic development has empowered many women to play a more active role in their communities. A quarter of the seats in the Afghan parliament are reserved for women. In Kabul women are more actively involved in public life. These are substantial gains, described by one observer as “irreversible.”
In the all-important area of personal security, however, conditions have deteriorated. During my recent visit to Kabul, member of the Afghan Women’s Network said that the situation is more dangerous and uncertain for women now—despite the presence of 150,000 international troops. Insurgent groups have increased their control over many parts of the country.
Foreign military operations are oriented toward battling insurgents, the women explained, not protecting civilians. “No one protects us in the streets,” said one woman. A researcher exclaimed, “I’d rather trust my life to the thieves than the soldiers or police.” We don’t need policies that are created in Western capitals, said another woman. “We need to be involved in designing and monitoring our own security policies.”
Women have equal rights on paper, but in reality their freedoms are being undermined. Women are threatened not only by the Taliban, said the director of a coordinating agency for relief groups, but by Afghan government officials, the very same agencies Western governments are supporting. “Those guys in the government are the ones who passed the family law,” the agency director said, referring to the Personal Status Law adopted in 2009, a measure that legalizes rape in marriage.
The U.S. has concentrated on building the Afghan National Army and National Police, which will soon number 300,000 troops. This huge security force is unsustainable financially, and it has done little to provide security for Afghan women.
The U.S. is creating local police forces, supposedly to enhance security, but these poorly trained troops are responsible for many abuses, including murder, rape, arbitrary detention and illegal land grabs. These crimes are documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report.
As the U.S. and other countries begin to scale back their military involvement in Afghanistan, the challenge for the future will be preserving the gains women have achieved while ensuring greater protection for Afghan civilians, especially women. That will require a shift in strategy away from military combat operations toward a greater emphasis on development and human security.