As the month of March passes, the 2018 Women’s Day theme, relentless Press for Progress, must continue if the gains in women’s status in Afghanistan since 2001 are to be sustained.
Eminent members of the international community — individuals, governments, and NGOs, including those from Canada — pat themselves in the back, claiming that due to their efforts, life for Afghan girls is better than ever. History tells us that this claim is not justified, as much more sweeping reforms were undertaken in the past to promote women’s rights and freedoms — in education, head coverings, driving, travelling alone, participation in public life, and employment in hospitals, schools, and the government. Commendable advances in these areas were made under King Amanullah (1919–1929), King Zahir Shah (1933–1973), Muhammad Daud Khan (1973–1979), and the Soviet regime (1979–1992). In fact, women workers constituted half the labour force during the Soviet era.
The country plunged into a violent power struggle after the Soviet withdrawal in 1992. In the chaos and violence of the civil war years, women’s rights and freedoms began to crumble. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, established in 1996 by the Taliban, imposed severe restrictions, divesting women of their human rights.
Since the fall of the Taliban, national and international efforts have resulted in a few hard-won successes, but all the gains combined have not made women’s lives “better than ever.” Nor have the benefits accrued from these limited gains — mostly in urban areas — been distributed to women in rural areas and in lower socioeconomic strata of society. Advances made in securing women’s rights remain fragile.
The Afghan Constitution of 2004, based on the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is truly a progressive legal document. It ensures women’s rights in various areas: equality before the law; rights to education, health care, and employment opportunities; support to households headed by single women; and political participation of women. Yet, the constitution has hardly yielded the desired results, as the liberal articles of the constitution have not been fully addressed. Laws have not been enforced, making equality before the law elusive. Poverty, escalating insecurity, lawlessness, and patriarchal cultural traditions create an inhospitable environment, intensifying the plight of Afghan women.
Education is a basic barometer of societal development. For Afghan women, education gauges the overall state of development in women’s rights and gender equality.
Literacy is the first step in the education ladder and more than 80% of women in Afghanistan are illiterate, the highest in South Asia. In rural areas, where 74% of the population dwell, women’s illiteracy is close to 93%. Female literacy in the capital, Kabul, for instance is 34.7% while it is as low as 1.6% in more remote provinces. Statistics show that only 37% of adolescent girls, compared to 66% of adolescent boys, are literate.
Advances made in girls’ primary education are highlighted as success stories by the Afghan government and by donors eager to claim results for their investments. Education data coming through Afghan government channels normally show inflated achievements. The 2015 government data records 8 million children enrolled at the primary level, 39% of them girls. While these numbers paint a positive trajectory, in reality the highest gender disparity in the world is found in primary education in Afghanistan.
The American Special Inspector General for Afghanistan advises a cautionary approach in interpreting government-released data on education. His reports reveal grave flaws in reporting the number of operational schools, with funds being siphoned to hundreds of “ghost schools.” Reported student numbers (for both boys and girls) in these schools are obviously incorrect. The number of students reported as enrolled in primary school has lurched from year to year, raising questions about the methodology for collecting statistics and the accuracy of these numbers.
Multilateral organizations fear a decline in girls’ education overall. Some devastating truths about women’s education are cited in the reports of Human Rights Watch (October 2017) and UNESCO (Education for All, 2015).
Overall, the proportion of girls to boys attending school is falling. A significant percentage of girls claimed as enrolled by the Ministry of Education (MoE) do not attend classes regularly. More recent MoE data highlights the gap between enrollment and actual attendance. Some research findings show figures as low as only 40% of girls enrolled in primary school attending classes; with only 5% attending beyond sixth grade and only 21% of them finally graduating. School dropout rates for girls are far higher than for boys.
The rural–urban and economic divide seen in the literacy spread for women is mirrored in the number of girls going to school: 3.9 million children are out of school, 85% of them girls. The majority of girls who never go to school (an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls) are in rural areas. In some provinces, no girl attends school, starkly outlining the unequal, underdeveloped situation of poor rural women and girls.
After 16 years of investment in Afghanistan, the picture is quite dismal. International bilateral donors and civil society organizations, needing to show the efficacy of their donations, present inflated progress reports that highlight the anecdotal success stories of a girl or two. This is unhelpful when the overall statistics show a reversal of gains in women’s rights to education. Acceptance of the fundamental fact that two-thirds of Afghan girls are not in school should sober up the international community. Remedying this disparity requires immediate action.
Ironically, discussing progress in women’s rights in Afghanistan — in meetings at the fortified embassy compounds in the green zone, the protected Presidential Palace, and five-star hotels — will help elite women only. Filtering down the benefits to the doubly vulnerable poor women and girls should be the priority. But essentially, to sustain gender equality, educating boys and men will be a critical step in eliciting family and community support for the education of women and girls in a society immersed in patriarchal tradition and culture.