Jalal Foundation - http://jalal-foundation.org/
AFGHAN WOMEN TODAY:
Battling a Fresh Wave of Extremism
Founding Chairperson, Jalal Foundation
and former Minister of Women, Afghanistan
Women of Afghanistan are in the middle of a fierce battle against the resurgence of extremism. We have been there before and we know how it is – a limbo of cruelty, oppression, and daily waltz with terror and tragedy. The dark days of Taliban extremism stole the lives of many mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers and daughters. But those who survived learned the indomitability of the human spirit. Today, we vow to protect the next generation from another era of extremist tyranny and oppression.
Nowadays, the fragile gains of the past ten years are threatened to be eroded by the return of the Taliban and the consequent resurgence of radical extremism. Afghan women oppose this development as it will plunge us back to where we were before 9/11. This paper is a call for international support and solidarity with our struggle against another dark era of despotism and terror. The international community was the biggest single force that contributed to the loosening of extremist stronghold in our life. You helped to liberate us from the dungeon of unfathomable human oppression and we know that, like us, you will never allow the gains of the past decade to go down the drain.
II. THE PAST DECADE: It was not perfect, but we did well!
The 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan unfolded with a promise of a better life for Afghan women. Back then, despite massive skepticisms, we heaved a sigh of relief and celebrated the efforts of the international community to liberate us from the bond of oppression that brought immeasurable suffering to our people. Before the 2001 invasion, Afghan women wallowed in the mire of illiteracy, powerlessness, sexual abuse, slave-like servitude, social exclusion, economic deprivation, cruelty, and vulnerability in all its forms. It will be a fallacy to say that the lives of Afghan women did not change positively during the past ten years. Although the change did not touch the lives of many, the gender related reforms of the past decade were all meant to benefit every Afghan woman of the present and the future.
Our Constitution guaranteed equality in the rights and duties of women and men. It provided affirmative measures to ensure at least 25 percent representation of women in the Parliament, mandated compulsory education up to secondary level, declared that the State will support women without caretakers, and ensured their access to health, services and education. The Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), the Millennium Development Goals of Afghanistan, and the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan all spelled out how women’s empowerment and gender equality are to be pursued in various spheres of life. We enacted the law on the Elimination of Violence against Women. We even ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women without reservations.
After so many years, Afghan women were able to pursue education, have a career, and participate in elections and public life. They became players in the world of work, media and arts, medicine, agriculture, governance, welfare, and even in the non-traditional fields of mining, engineering, defense, politics and international diplomacy. We challenged long-held traditions that discriminate against women, such as the mandatory use of burqa, exclusion of women from religious worships in mosques, and restrictions to female mobility. Although violence against women remains pervasive, it began to be considered an agenda of public policy and action. Incidence of heinous crimes against women tied up to the traditions of morality and honor were visibly reduced during those years.
Women’s organizing and activism that were banned during the Taliban regime flourished. A national women’s machinery, gender focal points, and women’s departments were established within government. Even coalitions of civil society organizations began to embrace women’s agenda. Provincial and Community Development Councils welcomed women as leaders and members.
Truly, it was not perfect and the gains were few and fragile. But we were doing okay. It was a life a thousand times better than life under the Taliban regime.
III. STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS: Facts on where we stand at present
Statistics are not easy to generate in Afghanistan considering the lack of security, taboos that underline the disclosure of data about women, and the overall weak capacity and infrastructures for statistical generation and analysis. But available data indicate that while many issues remain long standing, something good is definitely happening. Here are some of the statistics that will show you were we are:
Gender Inequality Index (GII). The Gender Inequality Index or GII is a composite index that measures multidimensional inequalities on gender. It takes into consideration such factors as educational attainment, economic participation, and female-specific health issues to show losses in human development due to gender inequality. As of 2008, Afghanistan continues to have the highest GII of 0.797 in the South Asian Region and was ranked 134th in the global GII ranking. It means that we still have a very long way to go and we need far reaching, radical and innovative reforms to accelerate the attainment of our gender equality vision.
Life expectancy and population growth. The latest survey of the government shows that the life expectancy of both women and men has increased from the age of 45 years in 2003 to 64 years in 2010. This translates to a difference of 19 years which is very, very encouraging. Yet, it also raises a question on the capacity of the country to support the physical, intellectual, economic and other needs of a fast growing population. Afghanistan is one of the countries that produce one million babies a year. It has a growth rate of 4.8 percent, representing a doubling time of 14.5 years. If Afghanistan's growth rate will remain the same, its current population of 30 million is projected to be 60 million in 2020; 120 million in 2035; 280 million in 2049; 560 million in 2064; and 1.12 billion in 2078. This will pose stiff competition for services, resources and opportunities. Under extremist rule, it is not impossible to expect more deaths among women and greater deprivation in all aspects of life.
Maternal mortality. Once the highest in the world, maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan is now placed at below 500 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. This is lower by 1,300 than the 2005 study of the United Nations which placed the country’s maternal mortality ratio at 1,800 women dying per 100,000 live births. Even with such decrease, reproductive health complications continue to pose significant risks to women and account for about two in five deaths among women between the age group of 15 to 49 years.
Although still low, the number of women receiving skilled delivery care is increasing. In 2003, only 14 percent of deliveries were assisted by medically trained providers. In 2010, this figure more than doubled to 34 percent. This is a result of the training of around 20,000 community health workers and 2,500 midwives since 2003 – another example of a positive trend that has to be expanded and sustained.
Decision making. The government has made a commitment to attain at least 30 percent participation of women in decision making in all dimensions of national life by the year 2020, or seven years from now. However, there is no indication that this target is likely to be attained. For example, from 2007 to 2009, there was an average annual growth rate of 11.6 percent on women’s participation in government. However, they were confined to technical and low-paying positions. In total, women represent only 18.4 percent of the civil service and a measly 8.2 percent of decision making positions. Excluded from this figure are women in the police force where they comprise less than 1 percent of the total force. In defense, women still comprise a negligible percentage of .06 of the total number of military personnel as of 2011. They are only 5.5 percent of the total attorneys and 6.8 percent of all posts in the Justice Ministry. There has never been a female justice of the Supreme Court. As of 2009, the Provincial Councils (32%), Presidential Affair’s Office (40%), Parliament (27%), Ministry of Women’s Affairs (84%), and the Civil Service Commission (34%) are the agencies with the highest representation of women in decision making. Twenty one (21%) percent of 47 executive agencies do not have a female decision maker. Only 12 percent of Cabinet ministers are women and are all holding traditionally-female portfolios.
Violence against Women (VAW). VAW is an all-time problem in the country. The latest report of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission indicated that 4,010 cases of VAW were recorded from March 21 to October 21 of 2012 which is 57.33 percent more than the 2,299 cases reported for the period 21 March 2010 to 21 March 2011. UNAMA also reported that prosecutors registered 1,538 incidents which are 34.39 percent higher than the data for the previous period. This is seen as possible indication of increasing VAW incidents and the improving trend to report VAW cases. While there are 11 shelters for VAW survivors and their children, these are all seriously under-resourced, inadequately secured, and improperly managed. Underneath all these worrisome trends is a revelation from UNAMA that there has been a 61 percent indictment of cases reported to them, of which a 72 percent conviction of offenders was attained.
Yet, it is very concerning that that incidents of women-directed heinous crimes such as beheading, public executions, honor killing, laceration, stoning to death, assassination, and mutilation have been recently on the rise, which appears to herald a resurgence of Taliban-style cruelties against women.
Education. Presently, 40 percent or around 3 million school-aged girls are enrolled in school, including 164,000 girls in secondary school. In addition, some 40,000 young women are attending public/private universities or technical and vocational training institutes, with more enrolling each year. The national adult female literacy rate only slightly improved from 11 percent in 2005 to 12 percent in 2007, still much lower than the corresponding improvement for males at 32 percent in 2005 and 39 percent in 2007. For the period 2006 to 2010, the average annual growth rate of female university students was 15 percent, which is 2.6 percent higher than the annual growth rate of male students (15.2%). The same positive trend is true in regard to the average annual growth rate of female enrollment at the secondary level for the years 2005 to 2009 which recorded a 61 percent annual growth rate for girls and only 34.5 percent for boys.
Media. Afghanistan’s society has been heavily influenced by extremist attitudes toward women. The participation of women in media and arts is considered immoral and largely y frowned upon. Women who work in media and arts are expected to receive death threats and their families are subject to relentless intimidation. As of 2010, there was only 9 percent representation of women in this sector, of whom only 3 percent work at the provincial level. This is a sharp decline from the 2007 figure where representation of women in the sector was recorded at 29 percent.
Community Development Councils. There has been a remarkable increase in the participation of women in community development councils, the vehicle for implementation of socio-economic projects nationwide. Women’s representation in 2011 was recorded at 33 percent, an increase of 9 percent to the corresponding figure in 2005. Yet, field reports indicate that women’s decisions in the councils remain under the control of male leaders and members of their families.
IV. CHALLENGES AND OPTIONS
So, where do we stand right now? What are our challenges and options?
First, these achievements are meaningful but they are only foundational. They must be nourished to take roots and reach as many people as possible. A critical mass of our population need to taste the fruits of development as quickly as possible if we want to regenerate popular optimism and multiply the fruits of our foundational gains. We need to reverse our paradigms -- from focusing on the central provinces to bringing change to the remotest communities; from concentrating powers on our leaders to making them agents of empowerment to families and communities; from accommodating extremist ideologies to developing a social movement that promotes democracy and peace.
Second, the reform of the past ten years did not confront the ocean of issues that prevented positive changes to flourish. Absence of security, massive poverty, wide spread lack of human capacities, incompetent government, corrupt leadership, ethnic divisiveness, and environmental destruction are forces that continue to obstruct the flourishing of our foundational initiatives.
We need to work towards the election of competent national leaders who could galvanize our people around meaningful, sustainable change. We all know that Afghanistan is endowed with rich natural resources that are more than enough to fuel economic prosperity, even for centuries. An effective leader with a good heart, intellectual excellence, patriotism, and clear vision will not need to depend on international resources to move our nation forward. In the meantime, we need to send as many as possible of our youth to get quality education overseas because only by raising the caliber of our human resources can we attain a dramatic turnaround in our politics and economy.
Likewise, we need to bring back morality in governance and public service. We resent that society expects too much morality from women but closes its eyes on the brazen immorality of corruption, self-indulgence, dishonesty, and lack of integrity among leaders of our country. We need to unite our people under a platform of nationalism, environmental renewal, and societal transformation.
Third, our achievements at the policy level during the past ten years were not accompanied by reforms in the country’s social fabric. Our President, the only one we had during the past decade, lacks the reputation, power, charisma, and credibility to steer forward the waves of positive change. His actions contradicted Constitutional policies, sending a signal to the people that women’s empowerment is nothing but a joke. In a number of occasions, he stood openly to decimate the policy gains adopted by his very own government. For example, he endorsed an edict of the Afghanistan’s Council of Religious leaders which reinforces female subjugation and legitimizes the use of violence to control and discipline women. If we want women’s empowerment to flourish, we need no less than the President to serve as champion of women’s rights. Our next leader needs to be transformative enough to vigorously pursue social reforms in the school curriculum, media, religious institutions, and families to make sure that the claw of extremism releases its grip upon the minds, hearts and actions of every Afghan.
Fourth, the government’s effort to make peace with and bring back Taliban into the mainstream of national life is a big blow to the continuity of pro-women initiatives of the past decade. Right now, people have made conclusions that with the return of the Taliban, it is “open season” once again as far as abuse of women is concerned. The dramatic rise on VAW incidents that started last year and the resurgence of Taliban-style heinous crimes that are directed at women are both reflective of this trend. The drawdown of support from the international community, which is the most influential champion of Afghan women’s rights, makes the situation even more precarious because we are likely to be left alone in our fight against the resurgence of extremist-inspired cruelties against women.
Fifth, women’s views are continuously excluded from mainstream policy and decision making which leaves peace negotiations to leaders who give political concessions without regard for gender-related ramifications. For example, among the demands of the Taliban are the amendment of the Constitution and cancellation of elections. We oppose all efforts of the Taliban to amend our Constitution because it will be their point of entry to the institutionalization of fundamentalist policies that will again legitimize women’s inequality and dehumanization. And we reject the abolition of election because it will kill democracy and the freedom of our people. We reject reconciliation without justice and we do not accept the return of Taliban fighters in society without de-sensitization to aggression and reorientation to democracy and human rights.
Your Afghan sisters stand in the threshold of a new milestone that promises to be excruciating and bloody. We are fighting for gender equality, peace and democracy in a way that is frowned upon by many because they expect us to cower in fear and accept that extremist oppression is our destiny. Many of our women will continue to be maimed, murdered, and brutalized to silence us and demonstrate that extremism is back. But we will never be robbed of our rights again without giving it the ‘fight of our life’. We may not have the backing of our government, but we have you.
We count on your support. Please talk to your governments and ask them to bring the women’s agenda back to the center of national endeavors. Send us advice on how to strengthen our fight against extremism. Help our women NGOs move the gains of the past decade forward. Follow up the developments on Afghan women’s struggle against extremism. Support our campaign, provide spaces for our voices to be heard, and rally international movements around protecting gender equality, peace and democracy in our part of the world.
 Central Statistics Office, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 2003.
 Afghan Public Health Institute (APHI) of the Ministry of Public Health and the Central Statistics Organization (CSO), Afghanistan Mortality Survey, 2010.
 Rosenberg, Matt, Population Growth Rates and Doubling Time, About.com Guide, retrieved 23 August 2012.
 BBC News Asia, quoting from the Afghanistan Mortality Survey of the APHI, 2011.
 Central Statistics Organization, Updated Statistical Handbook on Women and Men in Afghanistan, 2012.