As Afghanistan looks toward its future, with a new president at the helm and the U.S. military presence drawing down, security remains among the country’s most daunting challenges going forward. Yet the growth of the country’s economy and political protections for Afghan women are also cause for concern for a large number of Afghans.
In its tenth annual public opinion survey in Afghanistan, Afghanistan in 2014: A Survey of the Afghan People, the Asia Foundation polled over nine thousand citizens across all thirty-four Afghan provinces. While insecurity remains the top public concern, 48.5 percent of those surveyed cited economic growth as the biggest problem confronting the nation today.
According to the survey, only 21.5 percent of Afghans reported that their economic situation has improved over the past year, and the overall self-reported unemployment rate has increased from 6.6 percent in 2013 to 10.7 percent in 2014.
But the story cannot be told in numbers alone. Hidden behind these figures is the increasing participation of women in Afghanistan’s economy.
For instance, the percentage of women who say they are unemployed increased from 3.7 percent in 2013 to 11.3 percent in 2014—a seemingly negative indicator. Yet the percentage of women who say they are working remained steady, meaning that the rise in women’s unemployment rate may in fact show an increase in women’s interest in joining the workforce. Indeed, the percentage of Afghans who say that female members of their family contribute to household income has increased from 13.9 percent in 2009 to 22.4 percent in 2014.
In all regions, the majority of Afghan women say that women should be allowed to work outside the home. And in most regions, the majority of Afghan men also support women’s work outside the home. When men do not support women’s employment, reasons other than tradition can be a factor. Security plays a significant role in men’s reticence to support women’s employment, according to the survey.
Violence attributed to the Taliban and other armed opposition groups continues to escalate in Afghanistan. In the last week alone, explosions and gunfire in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter have killed soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers alike, and suicide bombers have killed civilians at events across the country ranging from sporting matches to funerals. More than three quarters of Afghans say they would be afraid when traveling within Afghanistan.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more Afghans say they fear for the safety of themselves or their families, the less likely they are to support women working outside the home.
Even outside of security concerns, Afghan women risk losing the fragile gains they have made since the fall of the Taliban. A recent Oxfam paper notes that negotiations with the Taliban may be proceeding without any women representatives present, and quotas for women’s inclusion in the government are falling. A drop in women’s political participation is dangerous not only for the future of women’s rights, but also for Afghanistan’s prospects for stability: women’s involvement in peacebuilding has been shown to increase the probability that violence will end by 24 percent, according to research from Seton Hall University quoted in the Guardian.
Women’s empowerment, economic growth, and stability are interrelated, though often they are not treated as such. The new Afghan government faces significant challenges in tackling insecurity, economic growth, and the future of its country’s women. And the United States and Afghanistan’s other donors and allies have a role in helping to ensure support for each of these challenges continues.
For more on the status of women in the Afghanistan transition, please see CFR Fellow Catherine Powell’s Working Paper.