Women’s rights in Afghanistan: one step forward, two steps back?

Sofya Shahab

1 September 2017

Women’s empowerment in Afghanistan was at the forefront of the international agenda after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Now improvements have been made, but with a weakening of political will and transition underway, it is questionable whether these advances have been sustainable and how they are impacting the day to day lives of Afghan women. Violence against women remains widespread, with 87% of women experiencing it as a pervasive violation of rights that is intricately linked to the complex social conditions the international community pledged to address.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding women’s rights in Afghanistan has failed to translate into action. Promises and initial drive have not given rise to substance and although some policy frameworks have been adjusted, they have failed to influence community-level structures that exert the greatest power over the lives of women. Instead the opportunity in 2001 to change the position of women in society was missed and any positive steps that have been made are at risk of being lost.

The focus of NGOs within Afghanistan is moving ever further away from the implementation of gender projects under the guise of incorporating gender issues within the design of new or existing programmes.

As a report on women’s rights, gender equality and transition by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) put it: “a lack of political will, limited funding and weak capacity among key national and international stakeholders has meant that mainstreaming [the process of assessing the implications for women and men of a planned programme] has had little effect on standard operations.”

According to the senior research officer at AREU, Jennefer Bagaporo, gender mainstreaming can be effective when it is “a procedure or strategy that works for both men and women and means that their concerns and experiences – social, economic and political – are considered and integrated in policies, programmes and strategies. Not only of government institutions but in private sectors as well.”

Mainstreaming gender in projects encompassing other sectors would not be detrimental if it did not produce a mentality that reduces women’s rights to a token add-on, as opposed to a central issue that needs to be addressed. There are a number of reasons why NGOs may be so keen to embrace donors’ directives in this matter – primary among them, security. Within the Afghan context there is an acknowledgement that international organisations promoting gender equality open themselves up to targeting by hostile groups, with mere rumours of family planning workshops sparking riots in one town to the north of the country.

For donors the push for gender mainstreaming has enabled them to escape accountability as the direct impacts are far less tangible and so cannot be measured in the same way as specific gender programmes, while the allocation of funds for female empowerment becomes far less transparent. Security also acts as a limitation for donors, who feel that they have lost contact with people on the ground as they are unable to walk or move freely.

Problematically, policy alone does not change practice, and with elections and the withdrawal of troops, it is unknown how long those policies dealing with women’s rights will prosper. In setting targets and goals the impetus has been on delivering easy fixes such as schools and infrastructure as opposed to dealing with cultural attitudes and behaviour change. The legacies of neo-colonialism have additionally resulted in a reluctance and discomfort surrounding the exportation of ideas and values.

Some national civil society organisations are working on the ground to bring about shifts in perception. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission works with influential local leaders to become change agents. These groups need to collaborate with government and NGOs to generate models for the inclusion of women within the public sphere at all levels of society.

At this moment it is vital that adding the voice of women is not merely a symbolic gesture in the peace process, but that they are put at the heart of it. For women in Kandahar their greatest fear “is that instability will curtail the few liberties that we have attained; that men will have even greater control over our lives; and that our daughters will have no say in their future”.

Livelihood projects focussing on the economic empowerment of women are beginning to produce greater freedoms. However, for these to have the broadest impact they need to move away from traditionally accepted income-generating activities that reinforce gender norms, such as spinning or rug weaving. Instead, they should look to developing the private sector in order to integrate women within emerging markets.

For violence against women to truly come to an end we need to recognise the importance of putting women and girls at the centre of development. There is a feeling among women in Afghanistan that “in the last 10 years, men’s voices have been heard, in the next 10 years our voices must be heard. Our rights, needs and participation in society must be secured.”


This piece was originally published in The Guardian on 26 November 2013 at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/nov/26/womens-rights-afghanistan-gender-mainstreaming

Photo details

Title photo caption: Women in Kabul shout slogans to urge parliamentarians to pass a bill on the elimination of violence against women earlier this year.

Title photo credit: EPA/S. Sabawoon

About the Author

Sofya Shahab

Sofya Shahab has spent the last four years between Afghanistan and Iran where she worked across the humanitarian and development sectors with international NGOs.


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