Post-Conflict Reconstruction: The Importance of Women's Participation

March 11, 2004

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

Testimony of
Isobel Coleman
Senior Fellow,
Director of U.S. Foreign Policy and Women Initiative
Council on Foreign Relations

Before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus

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Thursday, March 11, 2004

Post-Conflict Reconstruction: The Importance of Women's Participation in Afghanistan And Iraq

Chairman Lantos, Representatives Johnson and Davis, I thank you for the opportunity to speak before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus about the importance of women in post-conflict reconstruction. I am a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and director there of an initiative that examines the role of women in economic and political development. I have recently returned from Afghanistan, where I visited a number of programs that focus on improving the status of women. I applaud this committee for bringing attention to the critical role that women must play in post-conflict situations.


The promotion of women's rights is often discussed as a moral imperative. I would like to focus today on the compelling economic arguments for giving women a greater role in post-conflict reconstruction. The research is unequivocal: If the goal is to improve health, nutrition or education, reduce fertility or child mortality, stem the spread of HIV, build robust and self-sustaining community organizations, encourage grass-roots democracy, and ultimately, temper extremism, successful efforts must target women.

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Economists increasingly recognize that nothing is more central to development than the economic, political and social participation and leadership of women. This is particularly true in post-conflict societies, where women often make up the majority of the population and have primary responsibility for raising the next generation. A broad set of data now show that raising female education, increasing their control over resources, and lifting their political voice can have a profound impact on development. While most in Washington would heartily agree with these objectives, the challenge for the U.S. is to formulate a set of policies that consistently promote women's empowerment, even when that may collide with other strategic objectives. The U.S. must also give sufficient priority to advancing the status of women, such that it amply funds programs targeting women.

If there is one thought I can impress upon you today, it is the absolute imperative of girls' education. While there is clearly no silver bullet for poverty reduction, many would argue that educating girls is the rocket booster of development. Educated women have fewer children, provide better nutrition and health for their families, experience significantly lower child mortality, generate more income and are far more likely to educate their children than women with little or no schooling, creating a virtuous cycle for the community and the country.

Giving women more control over resources is also important. Simply put, women tend to invest more in the family than men. When women control income, more is devoted to education, health and nutrition-related expenditures, and less is spent on alcohol and cigarettes. The outcome is not trivial - for example, increases in female income improve child survival rates 20 times more than increases in male income. There is, not surprisingly, also evidence that women in positions of political leadership make different policy choices than men. This has broad and potentially profound implications for the way that resources are allocated at the local-level, and therefore for development and post-conflict reconstruction. The bottom line is that in many countries, women are excluded politically and their needs tend to be neglected. Giving women access to political power begins to redress that.

These findings are incredibly important to keep in mind when discussing post-conflict situations, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq where there are significant cultural pressures, reinforced by religious values, restricting the role of women. In both countries, women's rights represent a line in the sand between religious conservatives and those with a more modern, progressive vision. Let me be clear: if these countries do not integrate women broadly into their reconstituted societies, giving them equal educational and employment opportunities, and upholding their political rights, they will stagnate economically and be unable to transition to functioning democracies.


The good news is that in Afghanistan, women have made significant strides in the past two years. First and foremost, girls are back in school. In fact, there are more girls in school in Afghanistan today than ever before in that country's history. Second, the new constitution is a victory for Afghan women, although the gains achieved should be viewed as a fragile first step. The constitution specifically identifies women as citizens with equal rights. It also guarantees two Parliamentary seats to women in each province, which will ensure women a 25% share of the national assembly.

Much concern has been expressed about the difficulties encountered to date in registering women to vote for the upcoming national elections. Overall, only about 10% of those registered are female. There are widespread reports about village leaders being pressured by conservative forces not to allow women to register to vote. These problems are real, and must be addressed, but they are certainly not inevitable. With focus and attention, women in Afghanistan can be mobilized politically. The impressive results of the National Solidarity Program (NSP) demonstrate that clearly. NSP is a community mobilization initiative sponsored by the World Bank, USAID and numerous NGOs. In the first 352 villages across five provinces where communities were organized and local elections held, 76% of eligible women voted, versus 69% of eligible men. (2289 women and 3755 men were elected).

This level of female political participation is remarkable given the longstanding cultural constraints on women and the deprivation of the Taliban years. But the recent gains women have achieved are only a starting point. Perhaps the biggest long-term obstacle to women's empowerment in Afghanistan today is a lack of education. Female illiteracy is hampering efforts to improve health care, create economic opportunities for women, and enable women to take advantage of the political opportunity of the new constitution. A recent UNICEF study puts female adult literacy at 21% in Afghanistan, but most education experts I spoke with in the country think that number is too high (especially when literacy is defined as reading and writing, as opposed to recognizing and signing one's name). All agree that in many regions, female adult literacy is certainly in the single digits. As the data cited earlier demonstrates, educating girls in Afghanistan should be a national obsession, since only by educating the next generation of mothers does the country stand a chance of breaking its cycle of dire poverty.

USAID has a good education initiative in Afghanistan, with an appropriate emphasis on girls' education. However, its funding for all educational programs is roughly $50 million per year over the next 2 years, which is grossly insufficient. AID's resources are focused on school construction, teacher training and capacity building within the Ministry of Education - all good things. School construction is clearly important, given the country's devastated infrastructure. But as one U.S. official told me in Kabul, "even if we had $500 million to spend it would still not be enough." And, the tendency is to shift resources toward school construction, since the results are easily measured. But this is the wrong measure to track, since buildings are simply an input to education, not an output. Schools can easily be bombed, neglected, or appropriated for the wrong purpose. On my recent visit, I heard several stories about local warlords trying to take over newly built schools for their own purposes. I also heard stories about villages wanting only boys to use the school.

Arguably, girls' most pressing educational need is for more female teachers. Lack of school facilities can be finessed over the near term by converting existing structures to schools for some portion of the day. But without female teachers, parents will not send their girls to school. On my recent visit to Afghanistan, I visited an innovative program in Jaghori administered by the NGO Future Generations that uses the local mosque to teach female adult literacy classes. This has several advantages: it leverages community support and uses an existing facility that's immediately available. Every village has a mosque. Admittedly, Jaghori is in a relatively more liberal Hazara region of Afghanistan. Mosque-based schools might meet resistance in most Pashtun areas which are more conservative. But as I witnessed, this program was readily embraced by the Hazara community. Moreover, everyone I spoke with said that across the country, demand for girls education is strong. It will take years to build a sufficient educational infrastructure around the country, and the roads enabling people to get to those schools from neighboring villages. In the meantime, the US should be more aggressively exploring innovative solutions to stretch existing educational dollars further. And it should allocate more funding to educational initiatives in general, and girls education in particular, if it is serious about promoting the role of women in Afghanistan.


Raising female education in Iraq is also important. There is a widespread perception that under Saddam Hussein's secular regime, gender equality in Iraq was the norm. This is simply untrue. Yes, women made up 19% of parliament, and 20% of the workforce, but the large gender gap in education immediately reveals the problem with this perception. According to UNESCO data and the World Development Indicators (WDI), less than a quarter of Iraqi women are literate, whereas literacy for men is 55%. This is the second largest gender gap in literacy in the Middle East (after Yemen), and one of the largest in the world. Although women in Iraq clearly start from a higher educational level than women in Afghanistan, and there is a more substantial existing educational infrastructure, there is a pressing need to close that country's large gender gap in literacy.

Another pressing issue for Iraqi women is to ensure that in the new political structure, the rights guaranteed them by the provisional constitution are protected. The US has appropriately funded a number of initiatives focused on women in Iraq - for example, the recently announced $10 million Democracy Initiative for leadership, political advocacy and media training for women. While this is positive, it is critical that the U.S. use its leverage in the run-up to the scheduled transition of power this summer to ensure protection of women's political and civil rights, even if that should conflict with other strategic objectives. Women should have a prominent role in the constitutional process going forward. It is emblematic of the gulf between rhetoric and reality on women's rights in Iraq that no women were included in the 24-member constitutional committee that drafted the interim constitution. Women should also be well represented in the judiciary. Washington should be supporting the training and appointment of well-qualified female judges throughout Iraq.

It is also important that U.S. and international community use every opportunity to empower women in Iraq by channeling economic opportunities to them. Laws restricting women's employment should be abolished. Women should be well-represented in all economic planning and decision-making processes. And small business loans and business training resources should be targeted toward women.

Closing gender gaps in Afghanistan and Iraq will take many years, but the stakes could not be higher. The US must stay the course on promoting women's rights if it hopes to reap the benefits of democracy and economic development in both countries.

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