A Future for Afghanistan’s Women?

Image from the photo exhibition "Between Peace and War" on display at the Asia Society

Afghan schoolgirls from the photo exhibition “Between Peace and War” on display at the Asia Society

As the 2014 deadline for the pullout of international combat troops nears, so many of us across the world share the anxiety of so many women and men in Afghanistan that important gains made since 2001 might be reversed or even undone. The most fragile progress no doubt is that made by Afghan women, and we’ve seen more and more bad news in just the last few months:

And this is hardly an exhaustive list of violence and intimidation targeted at women, and prominent ones at that. Will women be further marginalized and intimidated away from taking active roles in the future of their country? Will the U.S. and western pressure lead the Afghan government to cut a deal with the Taliban that negotiates away the rights of women? Will the next Afghan president support the rights of women? The stakes are high, and the future seems perilously uncertain on many fronts.

Panel discussion at the Asia Society

Panel discussion at the Asia Society

Thursday morning’s panel discussion at the Asia Society, while recognizing the profound reality of these struggles, gave cause for hope. The event, “Future of Freedom: The Fight for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,” was moderated by Elizabeth Rubin, a reporter for the New York Times who has done truly excellent reporting on Afghanistan over the last few years. Panelists included Shabana Basij-Rasikh, founder of an all-girls boarding school in Kabul called the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA); Severine Caluwaerts, an obstetrician/gynecologist with Doctors Without Borders who has done extensive work in Khost Province; and Gulden Turkoz-Cosslett, Director of Programmes for UN Women, who also spent her childhood years in Afghanistan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At the opening of the panel discussion, a number of substantive gains for women in Afghanistan since 2001 were noted:

  • The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan, estimated in 2001 as 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births has fallen to a current rate of 327 deaths per 100,000 live births
  • Of Afghanistan’s 10 million students, approximately 1/3 are girls (compared with virtually none in 2001)
  • 1 in 5 university students are women
  • Women are actively serving in provincial councils, in both chambers of Parliament, and in appointed offices throughout the Afghan government
  • Afghanistan’s constitution establishes the legal equality of women

While there have yet remained struggles, problems, and challenges in all of these areas–these are, nevertheless, genuine accomplishments that have been made only because Afghans themselves have made them a reality. Afghan women have also, and perhaps more quietly, set down roots through their work in nonprofits, educational institutions, and businesses to make profound gains for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country as a whole. The question is, then, are all of these advances together enough to withstand the transition away from U.S. and international security forces?

I believe it’s possible, and I’m not the only one. I’ve written before on this blog about the great work of Women for Afghan Women and the inspiring story of Afghanistan’s best-known female lawmaker, Fawzia Koofi, but this panel presents an opportunity to write here not just about inspiration and optimism, but the substantive causes for believing in and continuing the important work of supporting the rights of women in Afghanistan today, in 2014, and in the years to come.

The discussion between Shabana, Severine, Gulden, and Elizabeth Rubin showed–above all else–that the reality for women in Afghanistan is far more complex and nuanced than the typical narrative echoed over and over in the media that Afghan women are simply victims of circumstance. Here are key points I derived from the morning’s discussion:

1. Afghan men are increasingly showing support for women’s education and aspirations. It is plainly clear that the rights of women are a concern not simply for women, but society as a whole; disempowerment of girls and women cripples a nation’s economy and growth, and endemic violence towards women is a key indicator of broader violence both within a society and of a nation as an aggressor abroad. Increasingly Afghan men are realizing the value in supporting the aspirations of their female family members and the value that their education, employment, and achievements can add to families, communities, and the nation.

Afghan men, particularly in rural areas, may still resist allowing the women of their family opportunities–but this has also been in part because opportunities are more difficult to realize or less prevalent in rural areas. As more opportunities for girls and women (and boys and men as well) grow and reach the provinces, more families will support these opportunities. Afghan culture is deeply rooted in families, and behind each successful Afghan woman is a husband, father, uncle, or brother who has championed their growth and achievement. And as more women succeed, we will see more families supporting the aspirations and success of their female members.

2. Women and girls have been educated over the last 12 years. Shabana said, “Education is the hope for the future of Afghanistan.” Educated girls become educated wives and mothers, who then educate their children and other family members. And even in the most conservative areas, educated women become respected members of their communities. Afghan culture values education–the problems with education have been access and an effective curriculum. As gains in education continue, the gains of educated women will spread exponentially through their families and communities.

3. More and more women have become actors and influencers in politics, government administration, nonprofits, business, and culture over the last 12 years. As more Afghan women prove that they can make substantive contributions and improvements in Afghan society, the more all Afghans will see that women’s contributions outside the home are not only viable options, but vital to the success, growth, and stability of their nation.

Gulden said succinctly: “We must not give up hope on Afghanistan.” Troops may pull out, but committed aid efforts–and committed Afghans themselves–will remain and continue their important, hard work.  We must believe in them and support them however we can.

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