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As discussions about post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan continue, so do concerns about the country’s ability to stand on its own. The Afghan people and their government will determine the direction of the country. And as that future is discussed, so is the question of what will happen to 50 percent of country’s population: women.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they forbade women from attending school, working in offices, and leaving their homes without a male chaperone. Much has changed in the past decade as many women have worked to make the most of openings created by the international community’s presence.
Twelve years ago, there were fewer than 900,000 boys and almost no girls in school. Now there are more than 8.3 million students in school across Afghanistan, and 40 percent of them are girls. As noted in the recent report on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Afghanistan, published by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, there are currently sixty-nine women in Afghanistan’s Parliament, and the country aims to have female representation in parliament reach 30 percent by 2020. There are also twelve women in executive government departments, as well as five deputy ministers, one governor, one mayor, and numerous other women serving across the government. Women have even increased their presence in the police force, with an estimated 1,551 women donning police uniforms as of July 2013, according to Oxfam. The country recently saw the first woman appointed as district police chief.
Maternal health has also improved. The 2010 Afghanistan Mortality Survey estimated that there are 327 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births, a drop from the 1,600 per 100,000 estimated in 2008. This progress is thanks to an increase in average age of marriage, higher contraceptive use, lower fertility, and greater access to maternal care, as noted in the 2011 CFR working paper on Maternal Health in Afghanistan.
Despite daunting challenges, women have achieved economic gains as well. A recent report funded by the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan found that more women than ever work in formal businesses in Afghanistan as employees, owners, and entrepreneurs. The report, which surveyed more than 1,400 Afghan businesswomen across thirty-four provinces, also found that “views on women at work appear to be steadily evolving, with more segments of the population becoming amenable to and supportive of women’s economic participation.” Nearly all women surveyed said they had their family’s backing. Family support, paired with changing attitudes—such as considering education and employment valuable attributes in a wife—are helping create more opportunities for women in the workplace.
Seventy-eight percent of the women surveyed work in small businesses, and 81 percent cited access to financial services as a barrier hampering their economic potential, paralleling trends worldwide when it comes to women’s economic participation. Most respondents also said that they could use more business education, financial management skills, technical support, mentor-mentee opportunities, and support from the Afghan government in accessing these services.
Afghan women face the barriers to economic empowerment women struggle with worldwide, in addition to government corruption, deep-rooted cultural norms, and weak institutions and infrastructure that further limit their opportunities. The most fundamental threat to women remains safety and security, especially as the Law on Elimination of Violence again Women in Afghanistan has been implemented inconsistently. Taken as a whole, these challenges make Afghanistan one of the most challenging environments for businesswomen to survive, much less thrive, in.
But Afghan women have proven their resilience time and time again. If education rates for girls and women and community perceptions of the value of women continue to improve, women’s presence in the economy will grow. These changes will allow Afghan women to contribute even more to their families and communities, and pave the way for greater prosperity for all.