Gender and Nation Building: Women in Afghanistan

YuriFenopetov

by Yuri Fenopetov

The international community and many experts anticipate that Afghanistan will become a failed state as soon as the western-led military mission exits the country at the end of 2014. Establishing stability in Afghanistan goes hand in hand with establishing a more equitable society.

This instability stems from the fact that too much emphasis has been placed on satisfying regional and geopolitical interests, such as apprehending Osama bin Laden and keeping Afghanistan’s borders safe, instead of nation building. This resulted in a decentralization of power through intensified tribal and ethnic friction and the emergence of regional warlordism. This instability has adversely affected the Afghan population, but has had the most detrimental effect on the backbone of society: women.

The RAND Corporation National Security Research Division issued a report late last year arguing that establishing a more equitable society in Afghanistan would also increase the chances of stability. Titled “Women and Nation-Building,” the study looks specifically at Afghanistan and previous reconstruction efforts.

The report concluded that the incorporation of women into nation-building activities at an early stage produces a more democratic, stable and developed society. According to the study, by focusing on gender equity and women, when a society concerns itself with the disenfranchised it deters violence initiation. Also, economic and social development is elevated when women enter the marketplace.

The lives of Afghan women are well documented due to the extensive reporting and social work done by international and national civil society organizations. Nevertheless, the issues women face today are downplayed as media attention wavers depending on political trends in Western countries.

Most of the time the examination doesn’t go beyond the Taliban’s mistreatment of women. In 2002, Afghanistan embraced a public role for women more readily than many critics expected – not to mention the freedoms women enjoyed in the Afghanistan of the 1950s and 60s. Women signed petitions, voted, spoke out against corruption and even ran for public office – including in highly conservative provinces.

In fact, as extensive research and analysis shows, a majority of the population actually favors a more visible role of women in Afghan society and politics at present. In 2011, the Asia Foundation surveyed different strata of the Afghan public in various parts of the country, and found that 85 percent support equal opportunities for women, while 79 percent support the women’s right to vote or stand as candidates in elections.

Several steps have been taken in this regard. For example, President Hamid Karzai’s administration issued the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law in 2009. This law, considered a landmark regulation that signifies progress made since 2001, includes prohibition of rape, physical violence, child marriage and forced marriage, as well as the denial of rights to work and to education.

Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, hailed the law as a “huge achievement for all Afghans.” More than 650 incidents were reported from October 2012 to September 2013, showing positive signs that women in Afghanistan are increasingly willing to speak out and use national institutions to address their grievances.

While Afghanistan has made a step forward, it also has taken steps backward. For example, the Afghan Department for Women’s Affairs has reported more than 1,019 cases of violence against women, surpassing the amount of cases tracked by police and prosecutors. The gap between reported and tracked cases could indicate that Afghan girls and women are reluctant to approach authorities with their complaints and many cases of violence against women are underreported.

Also, the existence of the EVAW law is now threatened as the Afghan parliament is debating the regulation, and a strong conservative faction argues that some aspects of the law are “un-Islamic.” This faction even includes a number of female parliamentarians. While the law was signed by President Karzai, it was never adopted by parliament, which severely threatens its existence, should it be overturned or amended in the future.

In this light, nation-builders should increase their work in reconciling traditional values with progressive ideas involving women’s participation in society at an early stage at all levels, says the RAND report. The international community should increase efforts in assisting Afghanistan to formulate a broader concept of human security: a concept that has feasible longevity of which benefits should be made clear.

Failing to do so creates an increasingly hostile environment for women, diminishing all progress made since 2001. It also creates extremely unfavorable conditions for social and economic development in the future. As such, Afghanistan would ultimately be worse off than it could have been, making it even more difficult to bring stability and prosperity to the country in the long run.

Because of these setbacks, the EVAW law is taken less seriously and reluctance to apply it by law-enforcement authorities increases. With weak governance and a bad attitude toward the central government, conflicts emerge that are complexly intertwined with ethnic and tribal divides as well as with the global heroin trade, exacerbated by a vicious Taliban insurgency.

This is also evident in the increase of attacks on Afghan women in the past year. Among many examples, most prominently continued attacks on girls and girl schools in general, or the shocking targeted assassination of two senior female police officers – practices that can be traced back to decrees against women, proclaimed by the Taliban Religious Police after taking Kabul in 1996 during the Afghan civil war.

While initial military tasks, such as clearing contested territory from Taliban insurgents were successful; the “civilian surge” that followed failed to build a decent government in collaboration with Afghan officials. In 2003, a majority of military assets and attention moved to the war in Iraq, and the reliance on local feudal structures and warlordism spurred corruption and decentralization of the Afghan state system.

According to renowned Afghanistan experts, Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid, it would have been ludicrous to think that a solid counter-insurgency strategy could have been completed in two or three years.

The modern Afghan state has gone through three centuries of conflict where entire generations have never seen a peaceful Afghanistan. The efforts of the international community to stabilize and develop Afghanistan in recent years were unsuccessful, and sometimes even part of the problem itself.

As the country’s future balances on a tightrope, riddled with rampant corruption, loose agreements amongst warlords and a minority president from a minority tribe – deemed illegitimate by many – the attention of the international community turns away from Afghanistan, with the Afghan population paying the price.

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