Political and Social Affairs Division
10 January 2008
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Since 2001, the international community has pursued various strategies to advance the status of women in Afghanistan. These strategies have focused on constitutional rights, political participation, development and reconstruction, education, and the monitoring and promotion of human rights. Although progress has been made in some urban centres, the 85% of Afghan women who live in rural areas have benefited little from these interventions and programs.(1)
This brief provides an overview of gender issues in Afghanistan as they relate to women. It discusses the gains that have been made, while noting that some improvements have been largely symbolic and have yet to be translated to the grassroots level.(2) This paper also outlines how Canada’s role in Afghanistan has contributed to the advancement of women’s rights. Finally, it discusses the current security situation and the future of the status of women in Afghanistan.
The situation of women in Afghanistan has been dismal for many years. Their status was undermined during the Soviet occupation and under subsequent regimes; in fact, the violation of Afghan women’s human rights is considered to have been “at its worst during the civil war when Mujahedin leaders fought for control of Kabul” in the early 1990s.(3) However, “human rights abuses and crimes against women … failed to attract interest beyond Afghanistan.”(4) Women’s rights were further eroded when the Taliban came into power in 1996.(5) Yet the plight of Afghan women was largely ignored until the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 drew strategic interest toward Afghanistan. Women’s rights were cited as one of the justifications for the international community’s intervention.(6) Laura Bush, who delivered the “Weekly Radio Address” for the President of the United States on 17 November 2001, explained to the American public that “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment.”(7) However, as one analyst noted, “the war on terror did not present Afghan women with an immediate change in status, rights, or opportunity. In fact, the deteriorating security situation has severely negatively affected women’s ability to enjoy the rights and opportunities promised them by the international community.”(8)
Even though the results of a recent Environics survey shows that the majority of Afghans believe that women in their country are better off today than they were under the Taliban,(9) more detailed surveys conducted by the Asia Foundation point to uneven progress. For example, findings from the Foundation’s 2006 survey indicate that women “remain oppressed and discriminated against in crucial areas like healthcare and education” despite “significant levels of improvement.”(10) The 2007 survey report notes that opinions toward women with respect to matters such as wearing the burka and participating in politics(11) reflect “a country that is strongly rooted in tradition and conservatism.”(12)
To understand gender issues in Afghanistan, one has to consider the country’s multi-ethnic, multilingual and traditional society, which has historically been governed along tribal lines and by a weak central state.(13) The cultural and historical roots of gender discrimination and violence need to be considered,(14) along with the changing social structures that shape women’s lives, the unstable political and economic situation, the illicit trade in drugs and commodities, and the particular impact that human trafficking has on the lives of girls and women.(15) Within this general context, the needs of Afghan women are diverse and their socio-economic realities varied. Thus “[t]he reality of a nomad woman differs from that of a village woman and both are different from an urban university graduate woman.”(16)
That being said, given the traditional role played by most Afghan women in their families and communities, those who are actively working within their country to improve the status of women prefer to address the “shared suffering of women and men” rather than focusing solely on women’s rights.(17) Afghan women activists have pointed to the immediate concerns of a lack of physical safety, high maternal and child mortality, illiteracy, and food insecurity. Among the long-term solutions they are working toward are education, local income generation, and institutional support for redevelopment initiatives run by women.(18)
Several indicators point to gender inequality in Afghanistan. The following sections provide data on women’s life expectancy, literacy and educational levels, experiences of violence, and access to the legal system, drawing on the Afghanistan Human Development Report, the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, and various UN reports.(19)
The gender development index (GDI) adjusts human development indicators to reflect disparities between men and women along three dimensions: life expectancy and health, knowledge, and standard of living. The GDI for Afghanistan – at .310, one of the lowest in the world – reflects the lack of social and economic opportunity available to Afghan women.
The average woman in Afghanistan has a lifespan of 42 years, around 20 years short of the global average. Although women around the world generally live longer than men, Afghan women die at a younger age. Despite the toll of male casualties during 25 years of war, men still outnumber women by an average of 104 to 100 in all age groups. Afghanistan’s estimated maternal mortality rate of 1600 deaths per 100,000 live births is one of the highest in the world. Moreover, women’s fertility rates, at an average of 6.6, are the highest in the world. Frequent pregnancy often prevents Afghan women from pursuing an education or from taking part in gainful economic opportunities. At the same time, Afghanistan’s child mortality rates continue to be the highest in the world.
Afghanistan’s adult literacy rate ranks among the lowest in the world: only 23.5% of the population aged 15 and older are able to read and write. Only an estimated 12.6% of women are literate, compared with 32.4% of men. The female-to-male literacy ratio is 0.4 for the entire population, far lower than in neighbouring countries such as Iran (0.8) and Pakistan (0.6).(20) Girls’ access to education has improved in urban centres, but progress has been limited in rural areas. School enrolment rates at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels are 41.8% for females and 73.7% for males.(21)
In Afghanistan, 80-90% of economic activity occurs within the informal sector.Because of conservative practices,Afghan women encounter barriers to earning their own livelihood, have limited economic opportunities, and are restricted in their access to work outside of the home. Since the majority of women live in rural areas, their main activities are in agriculture, livestock management and family caregiving. These activities contribute to the household economy but are not remunerated.
According to the 2007 Afghanistan Human Development Report, violence against women in Afghanistan is widely believed to have reached “epidemic proportions.”(22) Most cases are unreported, owing to the severe restrictions women face in seeking justice or redress. The report notes that women suffer from tremendous human rights violations; for example, forced and childhood marriages constitute 60% to 80% of all marriages.(23)
The Special Rapporteur on violence against women has pointed to the war and post-war conflicts as contributing to the escalation of violence against women. In particular, the Rapporteur emphasized that there is a failure to protect women, given that a standardized and just normative system is lacking in Afghanistan. Violence against women can encompass marital rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence within the household; the physical and psychological violence associated with child marriages and forced marriages; the practice of self-immolation whereby women and girls attempt suicide by setting themselves on fire;(24) and, neglect through malnutrition and inadequate medical care.(25)
The high level of discrimination against Afghan women is reflected in the formal and informal institutions that govern the country. Because women have traditionally been unable to register cases themselves, female victims and defendants are often denied equal and fair access to justice. The under-representation of women is also a prevailing feature of the judiciary. Although 25% of students at Balkh and Kabul universities were female in 2003, only some 3% of judges are women. Affirmative action is viewed as one way to ensure greater participation of women in the Afghan judiciary and other rule of law institutions. Currently there are no women on the bench of the Afghan Supreme Court.
Progress in advancing the status of women has been made in the areas of constitutional rights, political representation and participation, development and reconstruction, and education. The Bonn Accords (which resulted from the United Nations peace negotiations in Bonn, Germany, in November and December 2001) outlined goals for Afghan women, including the right to vote in elections, serve in government, and be elected to Parliament. These goals were formalized in the 2004 Afghanistan Constitution and the Afghanistan Compact of 2006.(26) However, observers point out that change has been slow in some areas, as highlighted in the following sections.
After a period of intense negotiations, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was approved by the 502 members of the Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ) in January 2004.(27) The second chapter of Afghanistan’s new constitution enshrines the “Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens.” Article 22 states that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether women or men – have equal rights and duties before the law.” According to analyst Barnett Rubin, “The women delegates to the CLJ – about 20% of the total – made this passage their core demand.”(28)
However, concerns have been raised that the equality of women and men declared under Article 22 is tempered by Article 3, which states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”(29) Article 22 may thus provide for discriminatory application of religious or sharia law.(30) The precariousness of the status of women in Afghanistan was manifested when, in July 2006, President Karzai’s cabinet passed a proposal arising from the Ulema Council of Clerics that the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice be re-established. Under the Taliban, this department became notorious for its brutal imposition of extreme religious doctrine by means of its own police force, the “Vice and Virtue Police.”(31) Because the Constitution is vague on the question of the equality of women and the relationship between women’s rights and sharia law, commentators have noted that it “provides a legal opening for conservatives.”(32) In particular, they view the reconciling of sharia law and international human rights as problematic, given that sharia law, when applied in certain situations, “leav[es] women’s rights open to interpretation.”(33) Observers have expressed fears that the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice may be deemed “constitutional and within the framework of the International Convention on Human Rights.”(34) In light of arguments raised by political leaders, citizens and civil society groups, especially women, the proposal was blocked before it reached the National Assembly.(35)
Afghanistan’s National Assembly has two houses: the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house, and the Meshrano Jirga (or House of Elders), the upper house. Women’s political participation is guaranteed under Afghanistan’s Constitution. Article 83 of the Constitution gives Afghan women 25% of seats in the lower house, and Article 84 guarantees them almost 17% in the upper house. By allocating women a minimum 25% of the seats in the lower house, Afghanistan has taken steps to achieve equality in the representation of women in formal decision-making. The number of women who participate in governance does not, however, necessarily reflect the extent of their decision-making power or influence.(36) Some women have challenged the status quo. For example, the elected female parliamentarian from Farah Province, Mulalai Joya, was ousted from the Wolesi Jirga in May 2006 for criticizing her colleagues. In 2003, she had spoken out “publicly against warlords involved in drafting the Afghan Constitution.”(37)
A recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit has found that “women’s gender interests have not been substantively represented in parliament.”(38) The report attributes poor representation of gender issues to various factors: a lack of issues-based groups; a weak connection between parliamentarians and their constituents; patronage networks and class-based divisions; limited female representation in President Karzai’s cabinet; the confinement of women’s issues to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which thus marginalizes these concerns; and the international community’s promotion of a culture of unrealistic expectations that do not correspond to Afghanistan’s political and socioeconomic realities.(39)
Even though 40% of the electorate were women, participation measured through voting behaviour in the presidential elections of October 2004 varied regionally. In the Pashtun areas of Helmand and Oruzgan, women’s levels of participation were as low as 2% and 7%. In addition, there were several barriers to women’s broader participation in the elections. These included lack of citizenship education; a conservative culture in which 72% of the population believed that men should advise women on which candidate to vote for; threats from warlords; and the practice of voting according to clan or tribal affiliation.(40)
The Afghanistan Human Development Report expressed concern that women are excluded from participating in local jirgas and shuras, the all-male assemblies through which local governance is conducted. This exclusion can “result in serious consequences for their status and the protection of their rights.” Decisions made by jirgas may at times “violate Afghan state laws, Sharia, and fundamental human rights.”(41) At the same time, jirgas are viewed “as trustworthy, efficient, and less corrupt than state courts.”(42) Under the Afghan government’s National Solidarity Program, alternative assemblies called Community Development Councils were created, to which women were entitled to become elected representatives.(43)
The Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), Afghanistan’s road map to achieve its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and build a democratic state, is currently in its interim phase. The Afghanistan Compact, signed at the London Conference (31 January – 1 February 2006), is a political agreement or ”contract“ between the Afghan Government and the international community to work toward 42 five-year benchmarks of progress. (44) The Compact articulates political, economic, social and security priorities for Afghanistan, whereas ANDS outlines a more detailed strategy and specific programs through which the Afghanistan government can fulfil its commitments.(45) Gender issues are addressed in the plans laid out for Afghanistan’s development and reconstruction and are articulated in the ANDS and the Afghanistan Compact.
The Afghanistan Compact includes a gender benchmark, which states:
By end-2010: the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan will be fully implemented; and, in line with Afghanistan’s MDGs, female participation in all Afghan governance institutions, including elected and appointed bodies and the civil service, will be strengthened.
Gender equity cuts across the themes of Afghanistan’s three-pillar development strategy for security, governance and economic development. Gender equity is to be achieved through a 10-year National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA). A commitment to address the gender-related development goals is articulated in Afghanistan’s MDG report for 2005. Goal 3, to “Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women,” includes a commitment to address: educational disparity between males and females; low female literacy rates; violence against women; women’s rights; and participation of women in political decision-making. Goal 5, to “Improve Maternal Health,” addresses the high rates of maternal death in Afghanistan. To accommodate Afghanistan’s needs, the target date has been extended to 2020 from 2015. Under the leadership of ANDS, each ministry or agency must complete its respective development strategy. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, for example, has developed its own strategy for ANDS.
The Afghanistan Human Development Report notes that for Afghanistan to achieve its development goals, access to maternal health care and education must be improved and cultural barriers overcome. High female and child mortality rates reflect the poor conditions in which most Afghan women and children live. High child mortality rates can be attributed to a lack of access to safe drinking water, food, poor access to health care services, inadequate sanitation, and low literacy rates. Although a significant increase in the number of female health workers has enabled more women and girls to access health care, such progress cannot fully address the effects of widespread violence against women in Afghanistan and the failure of the legal system to protect them.
The Bonn Accords and the Agreement of November 2001 mandated the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA), which was charged with the coordination of various government ministries and partners to ensure that gender mainstreaming takes place in all programs and policies.(46) MOWA has reached out to women by establishing Women’s Resource Centres.
Although MOWA has a symbolic importance in reminding Afghan citizens of the importance of women’s rights, it has failed to significantly empower women.(47) It is worth noting that the only female minister in the government is the Minister of Women’s Affairs. In effect, MOWA has become a “kind of internationally-instigated dumping ground for any kind of ‘women’s issues.’”(48)
The Constitution of Afghanistan established the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) for the purpose of “monitoring the observation of human rights in Afghanistan, [in order] to promote their advancement and protection.” AIHRC is also responsible for advancing women’s rights and working toward the reduction and eventual elimination of discriminatory attitudes toward women. Afghanistan is party to several international human rights instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
A “crucial element in any strategy promoting sustainable security, social and economic development, and women’s rights is education for both males and females.”(49) Significant progress is reflected in the enrolment of six million children in the last five years in primary school. Approximately one-third of students in grades 1-12 are girls.
However, a significant number of children are dropping out of school. To encourage girls to stay in school, sufficient numbers of female teachers are needed to teach them in girls-only classrooms. Additional facilities are needed for girls-only schools, since many parents consider it inappropriate for their daughters to share a classroom with male students. Another reason why children drop out of school concerns personal security: parents are especially concerned about the security of female children, and there are a number of risks involved for girls when they need to walk a considerable distance to reach school.(50)
Canada’s role in Afghanistan has been articulated as the “three Ds” of diplomacy, defence and development. The Government of Canada has reiterated on several occasions its commitment to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan and to improving the status of women. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is the federal organization most actively engaged in addressing women’s issues in Afghanistan. Overall, CIDA funds projects aimed at enhancing the role of women and girls in Afghan society and improving their access to services and opportunities.(51) CIDA is a lead donor to the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan (MISFA), a national microcredit and microfinance program to which to which it has committed $56 million. MISFA funds 15 local microfinance institutions that, in turn, provide small loans and financial services to poor Afghans. As of 31 May 2007, more than 360,000 people had obtained small loans and savings services across 23 provinces in Afghanistan, including Kandahar; almost three-quarters of recipients are women.(52) CIDA also funds several education and literacy projects as well as projects that advocate for women’s rights. (53) For example, CIDA is investing in a $14.5 million project that aims to build 4,000 community-based schools and to train 9,000 teachers, of whom at least 4,000 will be women.(54) In the province of Kandahar, CIDA is funding a $1.4 million literacy project that also involves the training of community teachers, of whom 80% are women.(55) CIDA also funds projects that promote women’s rights. For example, it funds the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights and Democracy), which promotes and advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan.(56)
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan may have jeopardized the investments that Canada has made in Afghanistan’s development and reconstruction and in advancing women’s status. Of particular concern is Canada’s increasingly militarized role, given that the security of women and families is intrinsically linked to the political situation and its impact at the level of individual communities.
Farhoumand-Sims notes: “It is especially disconcerting that Canada has shifted its focus from supporting development, reconstruction, capacity-building, and civilian protection, and is instead spending millions of dollars on military action aimed at counterinsurgency operations.”(57)
As long as Afghanistan’s insecure and violent situation continues, it will remain difficult to achieve reconstruction and development goals and to advance the status of Afghan women. The United Nations has indicated that the current volatile situation is “undermining confidence in the future and denying access of the Government and international aid organizations to a growing number of districts.”(58) The report also notes that the “boldness and frequency of suicide bombing ambushes and direct fire attacks have increased.”(59) Suicide attacks inspire fear in communities. They impede the right of children to access education, since parents prefer to keep their children at home when the journey to school is dangerous. Indeed, fear of violence is a particular disincentive to sending girls to school.(60) Suicide attacks, which typically occur in market venues and other areas of high civilian traffic, undermine the freedom of movement of all members of a community; however, for women, whose freedom of movement is “already significantly constrained by religious, cultural and social conventions,”(61) the additional constraints imposed by the threat of violence are especially onerous.
Violence against women has also taken the form of politically motivated assassination, as in the murder of two well-known female journalists in June 2007 and the killing of the Provincial President of Women’s Affairs of Kandahar in September 2006.(62)
As the UN Secretary General’s recent report on the situation in Afghanistan notes:
The Government’s gender equity goals in the Afghan National Development Strategy remain far from full realization owing to a lack of adequate access to education facilities, widespread violence against women, the murder of journalists and targeting of female activists, teachers, students and Government officials, and a weak political commitment to advancing women’s issues.(63)