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The Limits of Foreign Intervention in Promoting Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

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The Limits of Foreign Intervention in Promoting Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

A foreign military presence was never meant to provide a long-term solution for securing protections for Afghan women. It’s time for the international community to support substantive and sustainable achievements.

The Limits of Foreign Intervention in Promoting Women’s Rights in Afghanistan
Credit: Flickr/ USAID

The reality that women in Afghanistan are faced with under Taliban rule is exceedingly grim compared to the conditions of relative freedom experienced by these women during the 20-year military intervention, and so it is not in the least bit surprising that many Afghan women have expressed nostalgia for the Halcyon Days of the foreign military presence. Nor is it surprising that there have been accusations that “the U.S. betrayed Afghan women,” with the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces leaving these women susceptible to the ideological whims of the Taliban as they enforce their own interpretation of “women’s rights in accordance with Islam.”

However, while the military presence certainly did serve to bolster the status of women in Afghanistan, a foreign military presence was never meant to provide a long-term solution for securing protections for women; it would be unreasonable to expect the U.S. government, the governments of NATO members, or any government for that matter to put troops in harm’s way to secure the rights of women in a foreign land. Unfortunately, USAID, the agency tasked with setting objectives and devising long-term strategies to promote the status of women in Afghanistan with an historic grant of $216 million, fell short in its efforts, producing gains that were neither substantive nor sustainable.

While the reinstallation of the Taliban government has brought with it its own egregious set of abuses (the detention of women’s rights activists and new barriers to women’s workforce participation, to name just a few), the Taliban are now also being centered in reports on abuses that were commonplace throughout the life of the Republic, and the Republic is being credited with upholding rights that were never actually enforced or even widely recognized. Through a revisionist account of recent history, the Republic has achieved the status of a bastion of freedom and rights for women.

Despite the allure of a return to “the good old days” in the current context of draconian repressive measures, it would make little sense to return to an agenda of more of the same to promote the status of women given the spurious gains of past initiatives. With a hot wash of past initiatives and an unvarnished assessment of outcomes, there is an opportunity for the international community to acknowledge the shortcomings of past initiatives and to reorient its approach and recalibrate its methodology accordingly.

Recent history suggests that the struggle for gender equity in Afghanistan is an uphill battle against not just the Taliban, but also the apathy, and even antipathy, of the conservative majority. It has become apparent that social change cannot be wrought with military force, disruptive legislation, or even a few hundred million dollars in funding for the cause.

With an appreciation for the limitations of foreign intervention, the international community may choose to revise its approach moving forward, embracing a radical paradigm shift from a donor-centric model of support to one that centers Afghan women and the priorities that they identify. Navigating this unique terrain of cultural and moral values that are often at odds with international norms requires the kind of nuanced understanding of the culture that only Afghan women can supply.

With a shift in focus to Afghan woman-led and Afghan woman-owned initiatives to promote the status of women, there is an opportunity for the international community to support the achievement of gains that are both substantive and sustainable through the direct “micro-funding” of grassroots initiatives (once security conditions allow for donor agencies to deploy staff throughout the country to enable a robust monitoring and evaluation mechanism).

The Limitations of Intervention Amid Disparate Recalcitrant Cultural and Moral Values

Since the fall of Kabul on August 15, there has been extensive international media coverage documenting the rollback of women’s rights under Taliban rule, bringing some much-needed attention to the plight of Afghan women. Whereas much of the coverage is focused on Taliban restrictions that have never had a foothold in Afghan culture or tradition (such as the mandated full face covering), there has also been a tendency to muddy the waters by centering the Taliban in reports on abuses that are woven into the social fabric and have persisted despite the social engineering efforts of the past 20 years (such as domestic violence).

While an appeal to culture or tradition certainly does not serve to justify any abuse, the fact that some abuses, such as domestic violence, have a foundation in Afghan culture or tradition does suggest that the Taliban government is not the root cause of the abuse, and that regime change (or the restoration of a U.S.-backed government) is not the remedy.

This sort of centering of the Taliban in reports on abuses is evident in articles such as “Afghan women brace for uptick in domestic violence under Taliban,” and among some human rights advocates. While it is acknowledged in the article that “domestic abuse was pervasive in Afghan culture despite attempts by the former government to outlaw gender-based violence,” the primary focus of the piece is human rights advocates’ concerns about “increasing domestic violence directed toward women and girls in Afghanistan [given that] the few institutions and laws which once provided some protection have disappeared under the Taliban.” An analyst with Human Rights Watch put it this way: “[T]here will be some men whose behavior was being held back by legal constraints built within society — but now those gloves are off.”

However, given that only three years earlier, the very same Human Rights Watch analyst wrote a report entitled “Afghan Government Ignoring Violence Against Women,” in which she acknowledged that “most [domestic violence] cases never reached a court,” the “gloves off” scenario seems far-fetched. It reads more like hyperbole designed to stoke a sense of betrayal by assigning an outsized role to the Taliban government in the abuse of Afghan women, thereby making the case that the abuse is a direct result of the U.S./NATO withdrawal. Animated by a sense of betrayal, and convinced of U.S./NATO culpability, a host of detractors are pushing the narrative that the United States and its allies have an obligation to intervene to protect the rights of Afghan women.

Hyperbole aside, a 2018 United Nations report on sexual violence in Afghanistan confirms that under the U.S.-backed government, “there [was] a low conviction rate for cases of violence against women and girls, and impunity remain[ed] the norm.”

It would appear that the most formidable barrier to the advancement of women’s rights in Afghanistan is not so much the government – be it the former U.S.-backed Republic or the Taliban Emirate – but the limited buy-in among Afghans. A narrowed focus on the possibility of an uptick in domestic violence under Taliban rule seems like a distraction from the core issue of root causes, considering that in 2008, it was found that a staggering 87 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic violence. Any uptick is negligible in this context of near-ubiquity.

While legislative reforms were a step in the right direction in securing the rights of women in Afghanistan, the fact that there was vociferous pushback against legislation aimed at eliminating violence against women is an indicator of the recalcitrance of the cultural and moral values that create the conditions for such abuses. Although the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law was promulgated in 2009 by presidential decree, it was the 2013 attempt to ratify the law in parliament that sparked a backlash “because, before, the public did not know of [the law’s] existence.”

The public attention mobilized lobbyists and protestors; EVAW protests at Kabul University attracted 700 participants. An analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) characterized the issue of women’s rights as “potentially incendiary” and accounted for the backlash in this way: “being seen to push for reforms when it comes to Afghan women’s lives can easily touch and threaten the most deeply held sentiments of honor, patriarchy, love of one’s religion and patriotism.”

Most interestingly, it would seem that most Afghan women are not exempt from these deeply held sentiments, but share in them, including an affinity for patriarchy in its most extreme and violent form. In a 2012 study conducted by the Central Statistics Organization (CSO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), it was found that “over 90 percent of Afghan women believed a husband was justified in using physical violence against his wife for any reason.” Also, the findings of a 2018 Johns Hopkins University study revealed that 75 percent of married women in Afghanistan “find justification for wife-beating.”

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that it is not out of the ordinary for women themselves to perpetrate violence against other women in the context of “honor killings.” Stories about women participating in the abuse of female family members are commonplace in Afghanistan and all over the world among the Afghan diaspora. A story from Kunduz about a young woman who was murdered by her husband, with the assistance of her mother-in-law, for having given birth to a girl made international headlines back in 2012. More recently, in 2018 an Afghan woman was stripped of Canadian residency and ordered deported for her participation in the murder of her three daughters and her childless “sister-wife.”

Given the complexity of the unique socio-cultural landscape, Afghan women themselves are the ones who are best suited to the task of navigating the minefield of inveterate patriarchy and rigid social norms to determine context-appropriate objectives and strategies to promote the status of women in Afghanistan. With Afghan women setting the agenda and undertaking sustained efforts to make inroads at a grassroots level, along with targeted funding from the international community to support these initiatives, there is an opportunity to generate gains that are both substantive and sustainable.

For the international community, the challenge is to embrace a kind of intellectual flexibility to allow for some degree of ease inhabiting unfamiliar territory; funding may be required for human rights initiatives where concepts of “universal rights” are sidelined to make space for concepts such as “justification for wife-beating” (and associated policies that may not prescribe zero tolerance). In this context of wholly disparate values, it is incumbent upon the international community – if it is to support the priorities of Afghan women – to rein in its assumptions about notions of “universal values” and cultivate an appreciation for the recalcitrance of cultural and moral values as a universal human phenomenon. Winning hearts and minds is not a thing, as seductive as the metaphor might be.

Limitations of Ill-Conceived Initiatives

Under the U.S.-backed government, women’s rights initiatives in Afghanistan were, more often than not, ill-conceived to the extent that they were lacking in contextual relevance, whether that context be socio-cultural, historical, economic, political, or national security-related in nature. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) gender-equity program “Promote” serves as a case in point. The historic 2015 grant of $216 million was touted as a game-changer; the program was launched to help 75,000 Afghan women secure “jobs, promotions, apprenticeships and internships,” but the September 2018 Audit Report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) paints a dismal picture of fecklessness and false promises.

At a September 2018 event at the University of Ottawa, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, was scathing in his criticism of the Promote program, and the U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan as a whole. Following his prepared remarks, Sopko riffed with some colorful off-the-cuff commentary, calling out hubris and mendacity where he sees it; his extemporaneous remarks were posted on the SIGAR Twitter feed in real-time:

As Sopko points out, few Afghan women, the intended beneficiaries of the program, were consulted for Promote, thereby limiting input from those with a nuanced, first-person understanding of the struggles faced by women in this unique socio-cultural context. Although USAID claimed that the project had garnered “significant partner country buy-in,” the agency “did not provide examples of this beyond […] three letters of support.”

Most interestingly, one of the three letters providing evidence of partner country buy-in was submitted by the American University of Afghanistan, one of the recipients of funding for the implementation of the Women’s Leadership Development (WLD) component of the program. This sort of flagrant quid pro quo in the allocation of reconstruction and development funds is par for the course in Afghanistan, unfortunately, among locals and internationals alike, and often eclipses requirements for a sound rationale or evidence of substantive outcomes.

According to the Audit Report, it is not clear what, if anything, was achieved through the WLD component of the Promote program. USAID backed up its claims of “progress” with enrollment information rather than programming results, citing “the number of women who received a certificate of completion for WLD instead of how many women obtained positions that allow them to apply management and leadership skills.” Similarly, with the Afghan Women in the Economy (WIE) and Women in Government (WIG) components of the program, “USAID/Afghanistan provided the number of participants enrolled, instead of how many participants had received new or better employment.” Sopko noted, “We can’t find any good data that [Promote is] helping any women.”

By obfuscating outcomes with a claptrap collection of metrics related to outputs, USAID spun a compelling narrative about progress being made in the advancement of the status of women. However, the reality fell well short of the narrative, as revealed in the SIGAR audit and testimony from Sopko. The $216 million grant generated a flurry of activity, but achieved very little in the way of concrete outcomes.

With a shift in focus from donor-centric programs designed to remake Afghan women in the image of a foreign ideal (which is rooted in a foreign socio-cultural context) to grassroots initiatives spawned by Afghan women, there is an opportunity for the international community to change course and redirect funding to projects which center the priorities of Afghan women, furthering the achievement of gains that are both substantive and sustainable.

It should not be a radical departure from the norm to suggest that Afghan women themselves might be best suited to the role of purveyors of local expertise in determining objectives and strategies to improve the lot of women in Afghan society. With an appreciation for the recalcitrance of cultural and moral values (including those values which are at odds with international norms), the international community might see some value in proceeding with humility, making a concerted effort to refrain from making assumptions or pontificating from that savior-complex place where the fog of jingoism allows the international community to tell itself that it is doing the good deed of serving those who are less fortunate or “less evolved.”

It would seem that, in the arena of reconstruction and international development, by default, the notion of progress is defined as a process of evolution from the values of aid recipients to those of donors, with the expectation being that donors’ values will take hold through exposure by virtue of their intrinsic superiority. However, it is apparent that a belief in the intrinsic superiority of one’s own values emerges across the board as a universal, and it seems rather patronizing to suggest to Afghan women that they need to be “saved” or “liberated” by espousing values that are anathema to their own.

Left to their own devices, Afghan women will save themselves, if they see fit, in their own manner, and in their own time, that is, in the same way that women have, historically and worldwide. For its part, the international community could offer invaluable support to Afghan women through the direct “micro-funding” of grassroots initiatives. If there is to be a sea change, it seems most likely that it will take shape organically, with local priorities emerging as the centrifugal force. Otherwise, if the international community is to persist in its efforts to project its own vision of women’s empowerment upon Afghan women as a metric for progress, then it will continue to miss the mark.

Disclosure Notice: During her time in Kabul, the author attended a series of meetings at the American Embassy Kabul, where she met with special agents to assist the office of the SIGAR in documenting evidence of fraud and malfeasance pertaining to a host of U.S. government-funded initiatives. One of the cases that she reported on involved fraudulent claims in the quarterly reports that the American University of Afghanistan submits to USAID; however, none of these claims was related to the Promote program.

Guest Author

Sasha Kassam

Sasha Kassam is an education professional with a background in philosophy. She has worked for the U.S. Department of State, USAID, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade/Global Affairs Canada. She is currently in Canada and writing a book, “Prelude to a Thesis on Democracy-Building: Afghanistan Case Study.” Follow her on Twitter: @SashaK1970