The long agony for Afghanistan’s women ended with the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Since then, thousands of women have been politically, socially, and economically active in Afghanistan in various capacities. Four of Afghanistan’s key ministries – the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, and the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs And Disabled – are led by women, as is Afghanistan’s Independent Commission on Human Rights.
Moreover, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has appointed three female ambassadors, to Norway, Switzerland, and Indonesia, while a woman has recently filled the newly established position of the deputy foreign minister for economic affairs. Five other deputy ministerial positions are occupied by women, and a fourth female ambassador will be appointed soon. At the same time, the Afghan Parliament continues to convene with a higher percentage of female representatives, 27.3 percent, than the legislative bodies of many of the most established democracies, including the U.S. Congress (15.2 percent) and British Parliament (19.7 percent).
In addition, Afghanistan has enacted the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVWA) law, which criminalizes all forms of harmful traditional practices. And the country has recently adopted an effective National Action Plan for the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, committing to promote women in leadership and their meaningful participation in conflict-prevention, peace negotiations, and post-conflict processes.
Yet despite these important advances, the condition of women in Afghanistan is still in urgent need of attention. Last year witnessed the killing and wounding of more than 11,000 civilians across Afghanistan, with a 37 percent increase in female casualties compared to 2014. In March 2015, a 27-year-old woman, Farkhunda Malikzada, was attacked and lynched outside a shrine in Kabul. She was accused of having burned a few pages of the Holy Quran, an accusation that was later found to be false. Even though special efforts have been made to fully prosecute and punish the murderers of Malikzada – including a recent order by President Ashraf Ghani to reopen her case to ensure that none of her murderers would escape full justice – the status of women in Afghanistan remains a concern.
One woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth, the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world (1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births). Mountainous terrain and weather conditions prevent timely medical attention for patients and pregnant women. Severe food shortages have resulted in chronic malnourishment among children, and 48 percent of Afghan women are iron-deficient.
Millions of girls cannot attend school because of security concerns or restrictive social norms. Just 12 percent of women 15 years and older can read and write, compared to 39 percent of men. The overall literacy rate for women between the ages of 15 and 24 stands at 24 percent, compared to 53 percent for men in Afghanistan.
This troubling situation is a legacy of decades of war and state collapse in the country. During decades of war and violence, the needs of women were neglected because Afghanistan did not have effective state institutions that could provide services to the people. Under the Taliban, women were relegated to the confines of their homes and deprived of education and basic human rights.
Afghanistan today is making efforts to recover from the effects of decades of utter desolation and destitution. Improving the condition of women is a major priority in the reforms agenda of the National Unity Government. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are firmly committed to empowering women, while First Lady Rula Ghani has made it one of her key priorities to support any initiatives that further the many causes of women, girls, and children, who constitute the bulk of vulnerable groups in Afghanistan.
Indeed, Afghanistan has a long way to go before it can catch up with the rest of the world, but the country is working hard. In the last fifteen years, schools and universities have opened their doors to a record number of women. Today, more than 8 million students are enrolled in school, including more than 2.5 million girls. Moreover, public university enrollment increased from 7,800 in 2001 to 123,000 in 2013. In 2008, 8,944 university students graduated in Afghanistan, of whom 1,734 were female students. These numbers have continued to rise, despite a spike in the number and frequency of terrorist attacks across Afghanistan, often targeting schools, teachers, and students, with most victims being girls.
Public health also has seen tremendous improvement over the past fifteen years. In 2002, only 9 percent of Afghans lived within a one-hour walk of a health facility. Today, more than 57 percent of the population does, enabling women to seek and receive medical treatment. Since 2003, the number of trained midwives present at birth has more than tripled, reducing maternal mortality rates. In 2013 alone, more than 150,000 babies were delivered by skilled birth attendants.
In addition to taking these concrete steps, the Afghan government is working to change societal mind-sets. In some parts of Afghanistan’s most traditional areas, attitudes hamper the progress of women. Unlike most governments in the world, the Afghan government not only makes and implements policies, but also functions as an agent of social change, working to ameliorate the traditional views that hold women back from fully developing their abilities and contributing to society.
At the local level, the Afghan government is partnering with elders and religious figures to ensure that attitudes change through a community-centered approach. Through the National Solidarity Program, more than 22,000 Afghan women have actively participated along with men in more than 10,000 community development councils to assess local needs, receive and implement grants from the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development and lead project design and implementation.
All said, the Afghan government is striving to consolidate the hard-earned gains of women over the past 15 years, as it is difficult to imagine how Afghanistan could stabilize and develop on a sustainable basis without institutionalizing the equal rights of women. In this light, the Afghan government is firmly committed to the global objective of “Planet 50-50 by 2030,” and counts heavily on the continued support of the international community for ensuring that the empowerment of women is treated as a continual process rather than a single benchmark. After all, international experience has demonstrated that even legal equality does not translate into equal treatment.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India. Prior to this, he was Afghanistan’s Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor, as well as Afghan Chargé d’Affaires to the United States. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari