The largest defeat of the British-Indian forces in the Second Anglo-Afghan War came through the leadership of one heroic, Afghan woman Malalai of Maiwand. Malalai called out to dejected Afghan troops and carried the Afghan banner before being killed on the battlefield.
A woman who rose to patriotic duty during troubled times, Malalai reminds us all of the critical role women must play in securing peace and prosperity for Afghanistan. While Afghan women have gained formal political suffrage under Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution, they are yet to secure equality. At present, Afghan women are not afforded the respect that the great Malalai still enjoys more than a hundred years after her death.
In the two decades before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, continuous civil strife in Afghanistan deprived Afghan women of the opportunity to participate in the political life of the country. The lack of social and economic freedoms left them marginalized and vulnerable, a financial burden on an impoverished society. Together with children and the elderly, they became victims of unspeakable atrocities. And during the Taliban period, any glimmer of hope for emancipation and empowerment of Afghan women was snuffed out, as they were denied basic human rights, including access to education and freedom of movement.
The post-Taliban government has sought to remediate these abuses through the creation of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and an Independent Human Rights Commission, yet attention to women’s issues is often overshadowed by other pressing issues like security concerns and the narcotics trade. Simply having institutions dedicated to gender sensitivity and tolerance will not ensure gender mainstreaming. As the Afghan government recognizes, harmonized attention to gender across all government bodies, as well as aid delivery organizations, must be instituted. The Afghan government has prepared a National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan, which will provide a comprehensive, cross-ministerial approach to improving the condition of women.
Without popular support, however, this laudable effort cannot be effectively implemented. Sadly, the very brave individuals who speak out for vulnerable populations in Afghanistan are targeted by the insurgent and extremist groups. As Shukria Barakzai, Member of Parliament from Kabul province, recently lamented: When I leave home these days for work, I am not quite sure whether I will be back [alive].
The persecution of these individuals fighting for Afghanistan’s progress is partly driven by Afghanistan’s male-dominant conservative culture. Successful gender mainstreaming will therefore require a fundamental alteration of Afghan societal norms over many generations.
Intensified education efforts at the village level can promulgate this long-term adjustment in Afghan culture and underscore the equality of all Afghans under the law. With half of the population under the age of 15, this youthfulness can serve as an advantageous agent of change to promote this transformation. The youth have not fully been appreciated as a resource for progress, however.
Though six million Afghan children are now enrolled in school, millions of others are not, due either to security concerns or employment demands. About a quarter of all children seven to 14 years old are forced to work to support their families. Criminal networks within the country also traffic children abroad as far away as the Middle East and Africa, where they are subjected to forced labor or even sexual abuse. Desperate to pay off outstanding debts, Afghan poppy farmers give away daughters in marriage at ages as young as seven years old.
Because Afghans are a very family-oriented people, empowering women will help improve the condition of Afghan children, and shifting responsibility within the family will bring positive effects which extend far beyond social equality.
Since Afghan women have an average of almost 7 children in their lifetime, their time is heavily devoted to domestic housework and child-rearing and they have little opportunity to contribute to family income. If Afghanistan is to achieve the double-digit growth needed to build a robust economy, women must contribute on a much larger scale. The Micro-finance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan and other sustainable micro-credit programs are reaching out across the country, as about 75 percent of these services are enjoyed by Afghan women.
Employment opportunities for women would enable the approximately three million war widows to provide for themselves and their families. As the 2003 Golden Globe-winning film Osama illustrated, when women are left without a male to head the household, they lose the ability to earn any income.
Along with improved educational and employment opportunities, women are in dire need of medical services. Women and children feel the brunt of insufficient health spending levels “just $1 per capital“ due to a lack of resources. One Afghan woman dies in childbirth about every half-hour and 20 percent of children never make it to their fifth birthday.
The good news is that funding in this sector, when appropriated, can have a dramatic impact. The Afghan Ministry of Public Health has been able to expand access to basic healthcare across Afghanistan. As a result, the infant mortality rate declined to about 135 per 1,000 live births in 2006, from an estimated 165 per 1,000 in 2001. The number of women receiving prenatal care increased to 30 percent in 2006 from 5 percent in 2003. Nineteen percent of pregnant women were attended by a skilled health worker last year, up from only 5 percent in 2003.
The development of a prioritized National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan is a monumental step in underscoring the importance of women’s issues in Afghanistan’s development. The question remains, however, if the Afghan people and international community will rally to make the vision of the Plan a reality. As Malalai’s story reminds us, women are the pillars of Afghanistan. By enhancing attention to women’s issues, more than half of the Afghan population can be socially, economically, and politically empowered to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan’s long-term development. The international community must help the Afghan government approach the task of empowering Afghan women as a continual process rather than as a single benchmark, for experience shows us that even legal equality does not translate into equal treatment.