Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Challenges to women’s empowerment in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has weathered numerous changes throughout its history, especially in regards to the women’s movement. Challenges facing Afghan women were precisely the topic of discussion today at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to commemorate International Women’s Day. Ms. Nilofar Sakhi, a visiting fellow at NED, began her presentation by briefly recounting the history of the women’s movement in her homeland.

The core issues facing the movement cannot effectively be addressed without gaining a historical context. The 1920s rang in the first era of change in the country with the establishment by Queen Surya of the first women’s organization, Organization for Women’s Protection and Legal Rights. Additionally, income-generation programs and cultural programs began to be implemented. These changes grew to include women in the police force and electoral politics offices. However, improvements began to backslide during the 1990s. The era from 1994 to 2001 is aptly labeled “Gender Apartheid.” From 2001 through the present, improvements, in part with the assistance of the international community, have slowly resurfaced. These recent efforts, and the obstacles thereto, are where Ms. Sakhi has concentrated her research.

The make-up of Afghanistan’s women’s movement is as follows: 20 percent women’s associations, which include shuras, youth associations, and associations within schools and universities; 55 percent nongovernmental organizations; 10 percent networks; 10 percent individuals; and 5 percent women’s ministry. These groups/persons regularly butt up against a patriarchal system derived from political instability, lack of law enforcement and poverty. As political instability increases, the social sector is the first to feel the impact. Additionally, law enforcement is not upheld in rural areas, where traditional elder councils – which exclude women – are the sole decision makers. Poverty also plagues women due to dependency on male family members for survival. Even those women who have jobs do not have control over their income. Cruel cultural practices, self-immolation and increased female mortality rates often derive from this Afghan system of strength and patriarchy.

As a result of these core issues, certain challenges arise. Due to targeted attacks, women are usually kept from the rebuilding process because their families are so concerned with the lack of security. On the legal front, police are not trained to be sensitive to domestic violence. The viewpoint of the person in power also matters to the movement, as they may hold a modernist, reformist or conservative approach. Additionally, the court system does not protect women from cruel cultural practices such as stoning or “baad” (the trading of women among tribes to compensate for tribal violence).

Additional challenges arise in regards to women living in rural areas. Rural women have thus far been excluded from the movement due to geographic and media isolation. Lack of security and the presence of opposition forces in the rural areas are also problematic.

Capacity building programs, not present before 2001, often do not educate men on women’s rights. Such programs also tend to be short-term, frequently neglect rural women, and lack management training and accountability.

In regards to economic challenges, women have fewer job opportunities available to them. Additionally sustainable programs often do not have a long-term or income-generating focus.

“In order to not repeat what happened decades ago” and to see some notable improvements in women’s conditions, Ms. Sakhi made a number of recommendations. Visible security measures need to be made. Educational curriculum, especially textbook depictions of work/gender divisions, need to be reformed. A space for women should be created in mosques and religious institutions. One way this could be done is to bring religious leaders to preach on the Quranic verses that strongly favor women’s rights, both in a religious setting and to the media. Emphasizing the possibility for change, Ms. Sakhi recounted how the same mullah who stopped her from opening a women’s school, later spoke to the media about women’s rights.

Another recommendation is to establish family courts in provinces to investigate domestic cases, rather than to have all matters pass through Kabul. Additionally, Ms. Sakhi said that more job opportunities should be created for both urban and rural women, including long-term and income-generating projects. As a last recommendation, Ms. Sakhi suggested that men be included in gender-sensitive programs.

Though challenges were reaffirmed and slight pessimism was shown through remarks from audience members, Ms. Sakhi remained positive and hopeful, maintaining that change does not come overnight but has to start somewhere.


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