Afghanistan: The Key to Achieving Prosperity and Transforming Communities is Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment
Afghanistan: The Key to Achieving Prosperity and Transforming Communities is Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment
By Malalai Ahmadi
Legal advisor at a national trust with LPC LLM from the University of Law, LLB Law from the University of Sussex
Photo by © 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
Photo retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/18/afghan-women-win-fight-their-own-identity
Approximately 50 % of the population in Afghanistan are women. Empowerment of women and girls is not only a necessity, but imperative for the development of a war-torn country like Afghanistan, since it enhances both the quality and the quantity of human resources available for the development of the nation.
Women and girls in Afghanistan
Afghan women are incredibly resilient and deserve equal economic, education, social, political rights and opportunities so that they can participate in society, as well as protect their rights. In 2019, the World Bank reported that 48.7 % of the population in Afghanistan are women. Women’s literacy rate in the country is extremely low; around 87 % of Afghan women are illiterate (Afghanaid, n.d.). A shocking 90 % of Afghan women and girls suffer from at least one form of abuse, ‘including physical and psychological violence, and a shocking 70-80 % of girls face forced child marriage’ (Afghanaid, n.d.). Furthermore, it is estimated that around 28 % of Afghan girls are married before the age of 18 and 4 % before their 15thbirthday (Girls Not Brides, n.d.).
Over half of the population in Afghanistan live below the poverty line (Asian Development Bank, 2020). Due to the lack of access to education and employment opportunities, women are hit the hardest. Women and girls face ‘major barriers to education, employment, and participation in decision-making processes in their own homes and communities’ (Afghanaid, n.d.). Despite the improvement in recent years,the situation is described as ‘deeply concerning’ due to the deteriorating economic and social conditions of women and girls, in particular in Taliban stronghold areas. This is evident from the ‘substantiated reports of grave violations of the human rights of women and girls, including all forms of discrimination against them, such as restrictions on access to health care, education and employment’ (United Nations, 2020).
A recent survey by the Asia Foundation revealed that the major problems faced by women are as follows: unemployment, followed by domestic violence, lack of women’s rights, forced marriage and poverty (The Asia Foundation, 2019). Access to basic education beyond sixth grade remains a distant dream for girls in the rural and Taliban stronghold areas of the country.In 2019, the unemployment among the relatively few women in the workforce in Afghanistan hit an alarming 67 %, the highest ever recorded (Gallup, 2019). Along with domestic violence against women in their homes, women are constantly subject to terrorist attacks on a daily basis in Afghanistan. For instance, recently, in broad daylight, two female judges were brutally murdered and two more injured on the streets of Kabul by armed men. Given the relatively small number of females in high/leadership positions, this was indeed a grave loss, not only for the judicial system, but for the entire nation too. Violence of any kind against women and girls must end immediately and the government must safeguard the rights of every woman and girl in the country.
Four women representing Afghanistan in Doha, peace meeting/negotiation.
Ways in which to achieve women’s and girls’ empowerment
According to the World Bank’s 2012, World Development Report, closing gender gaps is vital for development and policy making because greater gender equality can enhance economic productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions and policies more representative.Women’s and girls’ empowerment is essential for ensuring a long-term sustainable development of the country and, more importantly, the individual women’s and girls’ future. Whilst extraordinary gains have been made by the Afghan women in recent years, there, still remains, however, enormous obstacles for women and girls to freely participate and have access to basic rights such as education, employment and healthcare. Therefore, the country has a long way to go before every woman and girl is given equal economic, education, social, political rights and opportunities. In order to achieve the above, the government must ensure the below policies are enforced, so that every woman and girl in the country is elevated from poverty and illiteracy – so they can become independent, active citizens, with the power to protect their rights and contribute to the society.
- End child marriage
It is reported that Afghan girls spend only an average of 5.6 years in school because early marriage prevents them from completing their education (Malala Fund, Afghanistan). According to a Human Rights Watch report, when one girl is married off in a family, her younger sister has to take on her household duties and, consequently, drops out of school and becomes vulnerable to child marriage (Human Rights Watch, 2017). Depriving one girl of education in a family creates a never-ending vicious cycle, whereby this not only negatively affects the future of that girl, but the future of all the girls after her in her family. Girls who are married at a young age are at a higher risk of domestic violence, abuse and are far less likely to be able to escape poverty. Furthermore, having children at a young age significantly increases the risk of health complications, death in childbirth and infant mortality. Therefore, marriage at a young age results in not only a huge loss for the individual girls, but their family and the society. This is because, without education, she continues to remain dependent on male relatives and thus unable to take care of herself or contribute to society.
Whilst Afghanistan has committed to eliminating child marriage by 2030 (UNICEF, 2018) the government must ensure that it is not only criminalised at the earliest possible opportunity, but the polices are actively enforced to ensure every girl in the country is able to focus on education and self-development so they can have a prosperous future. Criminalising child marriage will deter parents from getting their daughters married at a young age and, as a result, allow the girls to focus on their education – so they can become independent women of tomorrow, better parents and contributors to the development of their society.
- Guaranteed access to education
“Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilised educated nation”, (Napoleon Bonaparte). Family is the first agent of socialisation. Today’s girls are the mothers of tomorrow and mothers are the foundation of society because they raise the future generation of a country. Approximately 50 % of the total population in Afghanistan are women. Depriving 50 % of the population of education means that these women are unable to contribute towards the growth of the country and is effectively wasting 50 % of the country’s resources and talent, which is a huge economic loss for the country. ‘When girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous,’ said Michelle Obama, the former first lady of the USA. It is fundamental for the government to provide guaranteed access to quality education to girls in every corner of the country so they can be active citizens in order to promote the economic and social development of the country.
Traditionally, in Afghan society, a women’s main financial support is their male guardian, such as her father or brother before and husband and son after marriage. As a result of the high illiteracy rate, inability to work and earn often means women and girls are heavily reliant on their male relatives, even with basic tasks such as a visit to the doctor. This is particularly the case in poor and rural areas of the country. This male dependency creates an unequal bargaining power within their homes and communities, where women and girls have to comply with their male relative’s demand, even if this mean abuse and violence against their basic rights. For example, whether or not a girl will continue with her education beyond a certain age is usually a decision taken by her father or brother. Without education, women are deprived of financial independence and, as a result, women and girls have no choice but to accept whatever is imposed upon them by their male relatives. This practice deprives women and girls of their basic rights to make independent decisions about their future. Effectively, they have no say in how they want to lead their lives because it is often already planned for them by their families, which is to get married and have children as soon as possible. Marrying off a girl, especially in the rural parts of the country, is considered as a huge relief and discharge of responsibilities for the parents. Thus, besides poverty, this is one of the reasons why parents marry their daughters at a young age.
Making education compulsory for every girl until the age of sixteen will firstly prevent child marriages and secondly ensure that these girls are adequately trained so that they can then contribute tosociety, and protect their basic rights. More importantly, once adequately trained, they can then actively participate in opportunities and decision-making relating to economic, education, social and political rightsand, thus, create an equal society, wherein women can have equal rights and opportunities as men, which is the basic ingredient of a successful society.
Photo by Ahmad Bilal – From @Afghanistan_5
- Access to equal job opportunities
Empowering women and girls is not only imperative for their individual development, but also the overall development of society. In 2018, the unemployment rate among the relatively few women in the workforce hit a shocking 67 %, the highest ever recorded in Afghanistan, (Inside Afghanistan: Job Market Outlook Bleakest on Record, 2019). Some of the reasons that have forced many women out of their jobs include sexual harassment, domestic discrimination and violence. For instance, the recent deadly attack on the female judges in Kabul. Furthermore, oftentimes there is an element of stigma attached to women working. Men are ashamed of the idea that their wives and sisters are working in offices with male colleagues. The notion that women should not work outside their homes, has led to many educated women becoming housewives and dependent on their male relatives. Unless rigorous polices are introduced and implemented to protect women in the workplace against harassment and sexual abuse, families will continue to keep their educated women at home, since staying at home is considered the safest option for a woman in Afghanistan.
There is a strong need for role models of women in the workplace to encourage more women to join work and bring a positive shift in the culture. To achieve this, the government must introduce programmes that support women in employment, such as mentorship and a women’s employment union where they can safely and confidentially report work-related issues such as harassment. Women often do not come forward with their experiences out of fear of retaliation. Given the intricate/delicate nature of the Afghan culture and society, these fears are very valid and should be acknowledged. Such programmes will, one, ensure the privacy of a woman subject to any work-related issues such as harassment and, two, provide them with an avenue to report such activity directly without any fear of retribution.
Ultimately, education and financial independence are fundamental to achieving women’s and girls’ empowerment. Providing Afghan women and girls with equal education and employment rights as men willenhance the economic efficiency of the country and the overall productivity will increase if their skills and talents are used efficiently.Consequently, the government must ensure effective participation of women in economic, political and social life throughout the country, so they can then fully participate in society, protect their rights and contribute to the development of the country. This can be achieved through making education compulsory until the age of sixteen, criminalising child marriage, introducing and implementing effective women-friendly workplace programmes and policies.
(Malalai Ahmadi UK based Legal Advisor. Views expressed are personal.)
Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/malalai_a
Previous Publication – Afghanistan: Urgent Need for Strong Education and Welfare System to Combat Poverty and Extremism
The World bank, 2019 From: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.FE.ZS?locations=AF
Afghanaid, n.d., From: https://www.afghanaid.org.uk/Appeal/support-women-in-afghanistan
Asian Development Bank, 2020, From: https://www.adb.org/countries/afghanistan/data
United Nation, 2020, ‘Situation of women and girls in Afghanistan’, From: https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/l4.htm
The Asia Foundation, 2019, Afghanistan in 2019, ‘A Survey of the Afghan People’, p20, From: https://asiafoundation.org/
Gallup, Inside Afghanistan: Job Market Outlook Bleakest on Record, 2019, From: https://www.gallup.com/home.aspx
Girls Not Brides, What’s the child marriage rate? How big of an issue is child marriage?, n.d., From: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/
Malala Fund, ‘Nearly 3.7 million children are out of school in Afghanistan — and more than half are girls’ From: https://malala.org/countries/afghanistan
Human Rights Watch, “I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick”: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan, 2017, From: https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/10/17/i-wont-be-doctor-and-one-day-youll-be-sick/girls-access-education-afghanistan
Inside Afghanistan: Job Market Outlook Bleakest on Record, K Archer, 2019, From: https://news.gallup.com/poll/266555/inside-afghanistan-job-market-outlook-bleakest-record.aspx
World Bank, 2011, World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development
Malalai Ahmadi is a Legal advisor at a national trust with LPC LLM from the University of Law, LLB Law from the University of Sussex and experienced in; commercial, contracts, banking, private client and property law.
You can follow Malalai on twitter @Malalai_A
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