This post is by Jennifer L. Windsor, chief executive officer at Women for Women International.
Though the story of the Taliban taking over Kunduz and then retreating dominates headlines, Afghans continue to work towards shaping a different country where they can live in peace, women and girls are educated, and people have the power to decide their own fate. In fact, the majority of Afghans have little to no sympathy for the Taliban, and the country has taken notable steps towards progress for women in the past year.
It has been a year since Ashraf Ghani was sworn into the presidency. During this time, the Afghan Unity Government has made serious efforts to increase women’s participation in high-profile governmental offices. The change is visible at the very top, as several women have been appointed to senior positions in the government, and the President and First Lady have publicly reiterated their commitment to enhancing women’s rights.
The First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, is an active voice for women’s rights, and she has made a name for herself through continued humanitarian work for children, refugees, and women. She has also spoken globally about Afghan women, not only to dispel myths and stereotypes of victimhood but also to advocate for women’s participation in the country’s peace process, among other things. However, she is not the only woman acting from a position of power to move the country forward.
President Ghani has vowed to appoint four female ambassadors for Afghanistan and has already selected four women to occupy ministerial posts in his cabinet. Despite widespread opposition and protests, the President has also appointed two female governors.
The opposition has not thwarted President Ghani’s efforts to increase the number of women in his government. In fact, for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, the President introduced a woman to the Afghan Supreme Court. Though her appointment failed to receive enough votes to be ratified by the Afghan Parliament, there are already efforts to introduce another woman as a replacement.
While in the current administration, women seem to be breaking ground at the top, at the ground level they face discrimination, violence, and human rights violations. Sexual and street harassment, low literacy rates, insecurity, familial restrictions, and lack of employment opportunities all contribute to preventing women at the grassroots level from joining the government.
Despite efforts by governmental and non-governmental entities to increase women’s employment in the private and public sectors, only eight percent of Afghan women are involved in non-agricultural, wage-generating jobs. Many of those who work in the agricultural sector within familial structures are not paid for their labor. This further prevents them from participating equally in the economy and in society.
By and large, Afghan women still remain marginalized, illiterate, and with poor access to education, employment, health services, and other basic human rights. The majority of young girls in the country still face forced and early marriages and are prevented from accessing education past the third grade. Despite improvements in women’s health, Afghanistan continues to have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. Only 18 percent of Afghan women have basic literacy skills. Violence against women has actually increased in the past four years, and one after another, women are the targets of brutal killing, stoning, or other forms of illegal and public prosecution. Women earn 25 cents for every dollar men earn. According to UN Women, 87 percent of women face some form of violence at home. Many of the women who dare to speak up against these forms of violence are often targeted, threatened, or killed.
It is because of these daunting realities of Afghan society that as we celebrate the existence and work of women like Rula Ghani. However, we must also look around to recognize and address the needs of the most marginalized women in the country. There is hope that the engagement of women in the most senior positions of the government will have trickle-down positive impact on Afghan women as a whole. In a patriarchal society, female parliamentarians and governors are more likely to at least be cognizant of women’s issues. However, as women’s participation in high-level decision-making about health, education, and security increases, it is essential that women at the grassroots level also are empowered to take advantage of those decisions. For example, as the Afghan government increases the number of female parliamentarians that could pass laws such as the Elimination of Violence against Women Act, it is equally, if not more essential, that they also empower women in rural villages to make use of the law.
The strides women have made under Ghani have been tremendous. There are more Afghan women holding senior positions in the current administration than at any time since 2001, though women still make up only 25 percent of governmental employees. The mere existence of role models for young Afghan girls who dream of becoming ministers and judges is an important step forward for the country. However, for an Afghan girl outside of Kabul to realize her dream of such achievements, she must be able to read, have access to information and news and have the freedom, tools and confidence to envision a different world. For Afghanistan to achieve this, and make women’s empowerment a widespread rather than a top-down-effort, there must be more focus on addressing the problems faced by the vast majority of Afghan women and girls.
Taking more holistic approaches that complement the top-down approach to women’s empowerment will allow women in rural areas of Afghanistan who have little access to opportunity to also move forward.