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Don't Let The World Forget Its Promises To Afghan Women

It is clear that the international community's reconstruction efforts have largely bypassed Afghanistan's women and girls.
It is clear that the international community's reconstruction efforts have largely bypassed Afghanistan's women and girls.
A Taliban minister once said that a woman is like "a flower, a rose" that must be kept at home for one's own enjoyment. "You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell," said Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who served as foreign minister when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. "It is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled."

Following the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, however, Muttawakil’s olfactory senses would have been overwhelmed by the sudden burst of floral fragrance, as influential Afghan feminist figures -- Sima Samar, Amena Afzali, Fatima Gailani, Sohaila Siddiq, and others -- sprouted on the Afghan political stage.

Unfortunately, the sight of women begging for money to feed their starving families also became commonplace on the streets of the Afghan capital. Years of confinement at home, interrupted educations, dead or maimed husbands and fathers, and no prospects for gainful employment had left tens of thousands of Afghan women at their wits' end with no recourse but the indignity of soliciting the charity of strangers.

According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), there are an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 war widows in Kabul alone, most of them in their 30s and 94 percent of them unable to read or write.

Back in November 2001, when politicians were gathering in Bonn, Germany, to discuss post-Taliban Afghanistan, the catch phrases on everyone's lips included "nation-building," "human rights," and "women's rights." The Bonn agreement ended with a firm commitment by the international community to undo decades of damage to Afghan society and culture and put the country on track toward civil development.

On The Backburner

In the years that followed, much attention was paid to the handful of privileged Afghan women who took on highly visible roles in the Afghan political arena.

The camera also zoomed in on the success stories of a few dozen average Afghan women who became small-time entrepreneurs thanks to various initiatives aided by foreign nongovernmental organizations and funds from USAID and other Western institutions. Despite criticism that these efforts mostly turned Afghan women into seamstresses or carpet weavers, the bottom line was that these women were given a fair chance to earn a living and feed their families with dignity.

A burqa-clad Afghan woman and her child in Kabul. Only 5 percent of Afghan girls attend secondary school and one in nine women dies during childbirth.

Ten years and $300 billon later -- and in spite of a plethora of feel-good reports and upbeat statistics -- those noble objectives have been relegated to the backburner. It is clear that the international community's reconstruction efforts have largely bypassed women and girls. In a clumsy attempt to disengage from the mess that "the good war" has become, British and U.S. politicians have shifted their rhetoric from rights and democracy to leaving "the tribal Afghan nation" to its own cultural norms.

Predictably, so has Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose focus has been everywhere but on women’s issues as his government -- mired in a cesspool of corruption scandals -- grapples with deteriorating security conditions across the country. As Western donors toned down their insistence on women's rights, Karzai began shifting away from the issue, perhaps because he never believed in it in the first place or, perhaps, because appealing to conservative tribal sentiments became increasingly urgent as security deteriorated.

Another reason for the loss of momentum has been the strong presence of the most conservative of the former mujahedin leaders in all three branches of the state, as well as Karzai's dependence on their political support.

Changes Not Taken Root

It has been a challenge, to say the least, to sell the idea of women’s rights as per the 2004 Afghan Constitution to the conservative Afghan tribal chieftains and religious leaders. They have always viewed women's rights as a Western phenomenon that would erode the fabric of traditional Afghan society.

While post-Taliban Afghanistan may have brought a measure of improvement to the lot of women, these changes have not taken root in Afghan society. In fact, beyond the Afghan capital, there is little indication that any significant changes have radiated into the countryside.

While there may indeed be 8,000 schools in Afghanistan now, including several hundred just for girls, the bulk of these girls' schools are in Kabul. In the provinces, it is a different story. For example, central Uruzgan Province officially has 220 schools but only 21 of them are functioning. Of that, only one is a girls' school -- in the provincial capital.

An estimated 2,300 women and girls attempt suicide every year, according to government data. Their motives include domestic violence (1 in 3 Afghan women has been subjected to violence), high levels of forced marriage, and poverty.

Marginal Progress

Despite Western propaganda and the Afghan government's self-praise, only marginal progress has been made on women's education, health care, employment prospects, and access to justice. According to UNIFEM, only 12 percent of women aged 15 and older are literate; an estimated 60 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages; and 57 percent of girls who are married do so before the legal age of 16. Reliefweb, a global humanitarian watchdog website, further reports that only 5 percent of Afghan girls attend secondary school and one in nine women dies during childbirth.

As the prospect of reconciling with the Taliban gains momentum and is about to enter the practical stage as far as Washington is concerned, what will happen to the gains that Afghan women -- if only at the elite level -- have achieved since 2001? The progressive Afghan Constitution of 2004 gives equal rights to women and further stipulates that special attention must be paid by the state to girls' education and women's health care, values that stand in direct opposition to the vision articulated by the Taliban and other armed opposition groups.

On the occasion of International Women's Day, the Afghan government ought to consider a genuine policy of ameliorating the predicament of 50 percent of its citizens. It is time for the U.S.-led international community to return to its original agenda of lending strong political support to the cause of Afghan women and, above all, preventing elements within the Afghan government from selling out the rights of Afghan women for the sake of a hasty reconciliation with an insurgency that has a notorious track record with "roses."

Helena Malikyar specializes in Afghan state-building. Tanya Goudsouzian is a journalist who has covered Afghanistan since 2001. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL