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Women in Afghanistan: an emerging success story

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Rahima Zarifi, Director of Policy and Planning at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, is a storyteller. Sitting in her Kabul office, an overflowing garden of roses growing outside her window, she talks about women’s progress in Afghanistan. “It’s a success story,” she says, looking up from a soon-to-be released report outlining the government’s 5-year strategic plan for the inclusion of women in society. “Afghan women have endured so much, and come so far.”

From 1996-2001, under the Taliban, women were entirely excluded from public life. After years of their faces being covered by burqas, the women of Afghanistan have made extraordinary progress in the realms of government representation, professional opportunities, education and their full inclusion as members of society.

Afghan women are increasingly becoming part of the country’s local, provincial and national governments. Twenty-eight percent of Afghanistan’s parliamentarians are female—a proportion higher than 67 percent of countries tracked by the World Bank, including France, Canada, Poland, Australia and the United States. More than 20 percent of civil service employees are female and 10 percent of government leadership positions are held by women, including four cabinet members, 240 judges, eight deputy ministers, two ambassadors and the deputy chair of the High Peace Council, the body mandated to handle peace affairs with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The Women in Government Program places 3,000 female university graduates in paid civil service internships, giving them the skills and experience for their future careers.

Job opportunities across sectors have hugely increased for Afghan women. A record two-thirds of the population believes women have the right to work outside of the home, according to the Asia Society’s 2015 Survey of the Afghan People. Women have increasingly become involved in Afghanistan’s security forces. The Strategy and Action Plan for the Integration of Female Police has introduced 1,300 female police officers to Afghanistan’s national force, and more than 2,000 armed service members are female. Three thousand seven hundred females comprise 20 percent of the nation’s doctors. More than 2,000 women work in the private media, with more than 30 media outlets and 800 businesses headed by women. In April 2016, female music conductor Negin Khpalwak led the debut performance of the country’s first all-female orchestra. Afghan athlete Mastoora Arezoo was born in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. “In school, boys had access to sports facilities while girls were told to occupy themselves with chores,” she says. “I got tired of this.” She went on to found a youth sports publication, assume the presidencies of the National Badminton Federation and Asia’s Badminton Federation and become Afghanistan’s National Sports Ambassador.

President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly emphasized his government’s commitment to the cause of women. Initiatives of First Lady Rula Ghani mark the first active women’s rights campaigning of a first lady since Afghanistan’s Queen Soraya, who was First Lady from 1919-1929. In May 2016, Afghanistan hosted the Third International Symposium on Empowerment and the Role of Women in Afghanistan. “[Afghan women] want progress equal to men and an equal and multidimensional role in the country’s development,” President Ghani said at the conference. “It is my personal commitment and the commitment of the National Unity Government to activate the presence of Afghan women in all spheres.”

Today, three and a half million Afghan girls attend school, with nearly a third of that number newly enrolled in 2016. The National Unity Government has endorsed a plan to introduce female deputy directors in all 34 Ministry of Education provincial offices. In an effort to increase female teacher representation, the General Partnership for Education Program has sent 300 female teachers to six provinces with historically disproportionate teacher gender representation.

Despite this progress, Afghanistan has a long way to go before its women are full and equal citizens, both under law and in practice. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 46 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, and only 21 percent of girls nationally complete primary school. Female illiteracy is above 80 percent, and stigma against females working remains prohibitively high in many parts of the country. The Ending Violence Against Women law has yet to be ratified by parliament, and Afghanistan has among the highest rates of gender-based violence and maternal mortality in the world. While Afghanistan has made remarkable progress in the state and rights of women over the past 15 years and the 2016 Symposium put forward a cohesive and comprehensive set of recommendations and goals, there is much need for international support to ensure the continuation of improved rights and sustainability of Afghan women’s rights.

“In the past 15 years, we have come a long way, says Simin Barekzai, a female Member of Parliament. “The commitment of the National Unity Government is promising. But the mission will remain difficult because in 2001 we started from a very low point—a situation where women were not even allowed to come out of their houses. We still have a long journey.”