Five years on, conditions for women in Afghanistan are still poor

Diane Sweet
Published: Wednesday November 15, 2006

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Late in 2001, after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the opening of that country's doors to the international community, the treatment of Afghan women almost overnight became a cause célèbre throughout the world. Organizations flocked to Kabul to open offices and begin projects aimed at the needs of women.

U.S. coalition troops moved into southern Afghanistan, and NATO countries offered the services of thousands more troops, who were deployed to provide national security. During this time in 2001, the opportunity was present to found a lasting peace in a nation that had suffered nearly a quarter of a century of violent conflict.

Women's rights were at the forefront of discussions of a new form of government for Afghanistan, and an amazing 102 female delegates participated in the Constitution Loya Jirga of December 2003. It appeared that progress was being made and women were occupying central roles in the country's political life.

However, according to a new report released by Womankind Worldwide, "paper rights have not equalled rights in practice," and we have failed to fully realize the opportunity we had in 2001 for fostering a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

The facts and statistics presented about the status of women's rights in Afghanistan five years on are staggering:

  • Since 2001, at a conservative estimate, there have been 273,648 Afghan civilian deaths as a result of the war, with thousands more wounded.

  • In Sept.'06, Safia Amajan -- the head of the Department of Women's Affairs -- was shot dead outside her home in Khandahar by two men on a motorbike.

  • There has been at least one verified case of a woman stoned to death by her community, twenty-nine year old "Amina," who died by stoning in Badakhashan Province in May 2005.

  • 70-85% of women in Afghanistan remain unaware of the rights afforded to women in Islam.

  • It is estimated that between 60-80% of all marriages are forced, with 57% of girls married before the age of 16 and some as young as 6 years old. Many more, if not married during their childhood, are betrothed without their consent or knowledge.

  • Still ongoing is the tribal practice of "baad," the exchange of girls or women as restitution for a crime or debt.

  • In Kabul alone there are some 50,000 widows who face grave barriers to employment and are often denied the basic necessities of healthcare, education, and even clean water.

  • Of women who do work in Afghanistan, the average wage is approximately 34% of what a man would earn.

  • There is an insufficient number of public schools, with no education available at all in some districts, leading to extensive travel, and not enough security to protect those who would venture out to attend school.

    Of the available schools, only 19% are designated for girls (there are no co-ed classes in Afghanistan), and 415 of the existing educational districts have no girls in school at all.

    Women also have limited accesss to higher education. Kabul University is only able to acept 10% of all applicants for entry, as they are under-resourced and in need of qualified staff, better libraries, and reconstruction of facilities. An additional barrier is the lack of dormitories for women or safe transportation. Aside from the normal tuition, bribery of school officials is commonplace.

    The educational process often ends altogether for girls and women upon marriage.

  • Self immolation has increased greatly since 2003 as a result of abusive and forced marriages.

  • Rates of child labor have increased -- including girls forced to work as beggars, in debt bondage, at brick kilns, or in the the carpet making industries.

  • The female illiteracy rate in Afghanistan is 85%.

  • Authorities rarely investigate women's complaints of violent attacks, such as rape, murder, or suicide. The judiciary overwhelmingly tends to hold women responsible for crimes in which they are the victims (rape and other attacks), and judges rule using tribal law rather than the codified laws of the country.

Women activists in Afghanistan interviewed by Womankind Worldwide expressed "deep frustration" at how little voice they had in setting the aid and reconstruction agenda in their country.

Key among the recommendations to turn around this failure to realize international standards of human rights for Afghan women is addressing the need for security, along with the vital need for the media, donor governments, international governments, and the Afghan government itself to aknowledge the lack of progress.

For now, the basic needs of Afghanistan's women and girls -- clean water, healthcare, education -- remain out of reach.