While the World Scales Back its Afghanistan Ambitions, Afghan Women Push Forward

September 15, 2010

At the same time the United States is scaling back its goals for Afghanistan, women in the country are scaling up their own ambitions. In arenas ranging from medicine to the military, from small business to civil society, women are speaking up for themselves and tackling ever-larger aspirations. While problems loom large in a country in which female literacy rates struggle to top 15 percent and rampant insecurity leads many families to keep their daughters and wives indoors, women are making progress. Though their efforts are often overlooked as the world trains its focus on the exits in Afghanistan, they are, quietly and slowly, creating change in their families and their country.

In a box of a building on an Afghan Army base, 29 young women in olive-green uniforms study finance and logistics. They are part of the Afghan National Army’s first Officer Candidate School class for women.

Coming from provinces all across the country, including those in the grip of an increasingly strong anti-government insurgency, these aspiring Army officers say they are determined to serve their country — and to prove to men that women can contribute.

“We have faced so many wars and so many restrictions on women and now the day has come where women have joined the military,” said Shima, a young woman from the Taliban stronghold of Ghazni. “We have to think about the equality of men and women just like other nations where women fight for their countries.”

On Wednesday a group of women will gather at the Women’s Garden in Kabul to “promote women’s participation in the upcoming election.” Despite security risks and threats to their campaigns, more than 400 women are running in Saturday’s parliamentary vote, a figure that is up twenty percent from five years ago.

Women leaders won a hard-fought battle to be heard at July’s Kabul Conference. Now their goal is to keep the pressure on their own government and the international community, which has promised that peace with the Taliban will not come at the price of their rights.

“We are not going to be silent,” said Suraya Pakzad, a women’s rights activist and founder of Voice of Afghan Women. “We don’t want to lose things to gain things — to lose the rights of women, the right to education, the rights of media.”

Meanwhile, as the discussions about Taliban negotiations and graceful exit strategies wind on, plans for the future push forward. The Ministry of Public Health is now launching a study to judge just how much maternal health progress Afghanistan has made these past eight years. The hope is that the study will show a significant drop in maternal mortality thanks in large part to the nation’s 2500 midwives whose training program has now become a regional role model.

On the business front, Afghan women entrepreneurs are fighting to find access to lucrative foreign markets. One Kabul clothing exporter is now regularly shipping her shawls to the United States, while two soccer ball makers are preparing to send their wares to New York in time for the holiday season. And the fashion firm Kate Spade and the non-governmental organization Women for Women International are coming together to create jobs for more than 1,000 women by the end of 2013.

This, of course, assumes that the international community will still be able to do business in Afghanistan in 2013. While many wonder just what the country will look like and by how much more the world’s aspirations for the nation will have shrunk by then, the young Army officer candidates say they have faith that the world will stand by Afghanistan as the nation’s women serve their country on an ever-larger scale.

“We hope the military can defeat the Taliban, but we also have to look to the international community,” said Shima. “We have mentors and we have coalition forces helping us and standing side by side with us, so with all this help we will be able to defend Afghanistan.”