Help Empower the Women of Afghanistan
M. Ashraf Haidari / November 2007
The largest defeat of British-Indian forces in the
Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) came through the
leadership of a heroic Afghan woman: Malalai of
Maiwand. Malalai courageously inspired dejected Afghan
troops and carried the Afghan banner into the battle
that would end her life.
A woman who rose to meet a 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 have yet to secure equality.
According to the 2007 Afghanistan Human Development
Report, the female population in Afghanistan is beset
with low literacy rates, limited economic
opportunities, and instances of discrimination and
violence. In light of the report, Afghan women are not
afforded the respect that the revered Malalai still
enjoys more than 100 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.
Together with children and the elderly, they became
victims of unspeakable atrocities. During the Taliban
period, any glimmer of hope for the 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 lack of social
and economic freedoms left them marginalized and
vulnerable, and a financial burden on an impoverished
The new government has sought to remedy these
abuses through the creation of a Ministry of Woman
Affairs and an Independent Human Rights Commission.
However, attention to women’s issues is often
overshadowed by other pressing concerns, such as
security and the narcotics trade. Simply establishing
institutions dedicated to gender sensitivity and
tolerance does not ensure gender equality. As the
Afghan government recognizes, attention to women’s
issues across all government bodies and aid delivery
organizations must be established. Accordingly, the
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 on behalf of
vulnerable populations in Afghanistan are targeted by
insurgency 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.
Achieving gender equality will therefore require a
fundamental change in Afghan societal norms and
perceptions, over many generations.
Intensified education efforts at the village level
can advance this long-term transition in Afghan
culture and teach the equality of all Afghans under
the law. Also, with half of the population under the
age of 18, there exists a youth and vitality in the
population that is conducive to this transformation.
However, the youth have not yet been fully recognized
or appreciated as a driver for progressive thinking.
Though six million Afghan children are now enrolled
in school, millions more miss the opportunity of
education, due to security concerns or employment
demands. About a quarter of all children aged 7 to 14
must 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 exploitation.
Desperate to pay off debts, Afghan poppy farmers will
give for marriage daughters as young as seven years
Because Afghans are a very family-oriented people,
empowering women will help improve the condition of
Afghan children and deliver positive effects far
beyond social equality.
Since Afghan women have an average of about seven
children, typically their time is devoted to housework
and child-rearing, which severely limits any
opportunity for them 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.
One program designed to help women be more
economically productive is micro finance. The
Microfinance Investment Support Facility for
Afghanistan and other sustainable micro-credit
programs reach out across the country, with 75% of the
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 support 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. Due to a lack of resources, women and
children feel the brunt of insufficient health
spending levels, at just $1 per capita. One Afghan
woman dies in childbirth about every half-hour, and 20
percent of children never make it to their fifth
The good news is that when funding is made
available in this sector, it 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. Additionally, 19
percent of pregnant women were attended to 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, whether the Afghan people and international
community will rally to make the vision of the Plan a
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, going beyond the
one-time establishment of institutions to serve and
protect women. As we have seen, establishing legal
equality does not translate into equal treatment.
M. Ashraf Haidari is Political Counselor at the
Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC.