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Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition

by Catherine Powell
June 19, 2014

An Afghan woman walks inside a police compound in Herat province, Afghanistan, March 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Mohmmad Shoib). An Afghan woman walks inside a police compound in Herat province, Afghanistan, March 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Mohmmad Shoib).

When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, they shuttered girls’ schools, segregated many aspects of public life, including the workplace, and prevented women from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative escort. Since those dark days, Afghan women and girls have pushed diligently to expand their rights and remove gender restrictions on access to education, work, and health care. Today, an unprecedented number of Afghan girls are enrolled in school and millions of women have returned to the public sphere. Many have entered the workforce, including government posts, and some have run for office. Women are now an essential component of the post-Taliban order, and have played a significant role in reconstructing the state and its institutions.

Over the past decade, a new constitution and new or reformed laws have been adopted to further the protection of women’s rights. Afghans are clearly ready to take charge of their own future—as demonstrated by the recent presidential elections and ongoing transfer of security responsibility to Afghan authorities. Despite threats from the Taliban, women’s turnout was strong in the second round of presidential elections on June 14; women were estimated to be about 38 percent of voters, according to the country’s Independent Electoral Commission. However, the significant gains that Afghan women and girls have made are tenuous and could easily dissipate, particularly if international aid assistance significantly diminishes or the security situation deteriorates along with a reduced U.S. footprint.

Furthermore, the transition to a new president and possible peace efforts with the Taliban raise uncertainties about whether the future leadership in Afghanistan will protect gender equality. In a new Council on Foreign Relations’ working paper, “Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition,” I urge the United States to act now, in coordination with Afghanistan and its international partners, to cement and extend women’s gains, prevent reversal, and close remaining gaps. Significant gaps remain in terms of the rule of law, education, health, political participation, security, and economic opportunity. Additionally, Afghan women still face some of the worst literacy, poverty, maternal mortality, and life expectancy rates in the world. As President Obama recently noted, in outlining his timeframe for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, “[O]ur relationship [with Afghanistan] will not be defined by war—it will be shaped by our financial and development assistance, as well as our diplomatic support.”

To strengthen the progress already made, the working paper recommends that the U.S. national security adviser designate National Security Council senior directors to coordinate all agencies that work on Afghanistan, in order to better leverage the United States’ unique ability to continue supporting Afghan efforts to improve women’s security and leadership opportunities through diplomacy, defense, and development aid. The paper argues that securing and extending women’s rights is not just a human rights issue, but also an economic and a security matter, as the improved status of women correlates to prosperity and reduced rates of conflict and violence.

In short, Afghanistan’s economic growth, political development, and stability hinge on greater opportunities for women and girls. Afghans recognize this and overwhelmingly support greater opportunities for women and girls, notwithstanding the threats and opposition of extremists. The United States can and should play a supportive role in maintaining and extending the rights of Afghan women and girls; however the opportunity is diminishing as U.S. troops withdraw and security is handed over to Afghan authorities. Read the full working paper here.

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