CFR Expert Brief: Looming Threat to Afghan Women’s Rights

October 7, 2011

Following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Afghan women emerged as a high-profile focus of U.S. policy. Women’s progress was promoted as a powerful, positive product of the international presence in the war-scarred country. But ten years later, with negotiation and reconciliation widely viewed as the only options for ending the war, Afghan women’s rights seems largely forgotten. President Barack Obama notably said nothing of women in his 2009 speech on the war–his most significant public statement on the conflictat the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has remained a powerful advocate for Afghan women, leaders in that country wonder how strong U.S. support will be when Clinton is no longer in office.

While U.S. policymakers often cited expanding rights for Afghan women as a benefit of the war, their rights have largely come to be seen as necessary, though unfortunate, collateral damage on the way out of Afghanistan. As talk of UN Security Council Resolution 1325–which calls for women’s involvement in peace processes–has grown in volume and seriousness, the question remains whether Afghan women will gain a seat at the table.

Depriving Women of Rights

Women’s lack of rights under the Taliban was often included among indictments of the men who harbored Osama bin Laden following the September 11 attacks. Prior to the Taliban’s successful conquest of much of Afghanistan, women had worked as teachers and professors, doctors and city workers. With the Taliban’s arrival came an immediate ban on women’s work and schooling. Though women continued to work throughout the Taliban rule to support their families, much of it went on underground.

In November 2001, first lady Laura Bush delivered the president’s weekly radio address on the plight of Afghan women–marking the first time a first lady had delivered the president’s weekly address on her own. The State Department issued a report on the “Taliban’s War against Women,” describing violations of women’s rights as “appalling” and “egregious.” One month later, President George W. Bush signed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act, supporting the rights of women. “A central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women, and not only the women of Afghanistan,” Bush noted.

Among the guests at President Bush’s first post-9/11 State of the Union speech was the newly appointed Afghan minister for women’s affairs, Sima Samar. During the address, he cited Samar by name and applauded the gains in women’s rights since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Politicians across party lines joined Bush in linking the fight against terrorism with the rights of women. Then-senator Hillary Clinton wrote in TIME Magazine, “Long before the Taliban was at war with the civilized world, they were at war with half their population. The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11. Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic future for that war-torn nation.”

If the Taliban Return

That future has come under increased pressure as the Taliban grows stronger and it becomes more likely that at least some elements of the Taliban will return to power if a reconciliation deal is reached, despite current friction between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, corruption, the war’s soaring cost, and a lack of capacity lead many in the United States to wonder why U.S. forces remain in the country. More than half of Americans said the United States “should not be involved in Afghanistan” in a June 2011 CBS News poll. And in April, 49 percent of Americans said they disapproved of President Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan, according to ABC News/Washington Post polling.

The question remains as to whether Afghan women will play a substantive role in a nascent reconciliation process . . . . If not, there is a looming fear that women’s rights will be negotiated away in the quest to end the war.

Attention to the cause of Afghan women’s rights has also plummeted. Although women are guaranteed equal rights under the current constitution, they continue to face formidable cultural barriers and dire statistics. Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality ratios (PDF); one out of every eleven Afghan women faces a lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications (in the United States, that risk is 1 out of 2,100). Afghan women also have one of the lowest ages of female life expectancy, at approximately forty-eight years. A June 2011 Thomson Reuters poll ranked the country as the most dangerous in the world for women. Female literacy rates do not top 20 percent, and that number is higher among girls under eighteen.

Despite these obstacles, Afghan women continue to fight to take part in their society. They serve as parliamentarians, community leaders, midwives, teachers, professors, entrepreneurs, and prosecutors, building on the work they did prior to the Taliban’s arrival. Most development experts see this as not just good for women, but for the country and the economy. As the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab noted, “Low gender gaps are directly correlated with high economic competitiveness. Women and girls must be treated equally if a country is to grow and prosper.”

State Department officials privately say they are doing what they can to keep Afghan women on the international agenda, but acknowledge that Secretary Clinton’s battle to keep women in the conversation about what comes next in Afghanistan is a lonely one. The Obama administration, facing the stiff hurdles of an election year, wants a graceful exit to America’s longest war, given economic hardship and war exhaustion at home.

What’s Next

The question remains as to whether Afghan women will play a substantive role in a nascent reconciliation process, which is now floundering after the murder of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani. If not, there is a looming fear that women’s rights will be negotiated away in the quest to end the war. U.S. officials working on the peace process say that the White House wants to be able to point to concrete achievements in Afghanistan in the run-up to the 2012 elections, while still being able to declare the war’s end.

It is increasingly difficult to see how the United States will make good on Clinton’s promise to Afghan women, to ” not abandon you [and] stand with you always.” Several steps can be taken to ensure that the gains since the fall of the Taliban are not lost, but instead consolidated. The idea is not special treatment for women, but instead preservation of basic rights for work and school.

First, Afghan women should occupy more seats in the High Peace Council, the body established by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to promote reconciliation with the Taliban, though the entire reconciliation process’ future is now in question. Second, Afghan women must have a voice in the upcoming Bonn II Conference and Loya Jirga, which will play a role in deciding the country’s future. Third, women’s rights cannot be viewed exclusively as a human rights issue, but also as a security and economic development imperative that is central–not peripheral–to securing peace.

If President Obama is to reach his stated goal of “strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them” as the United States winds down the war, he must not neglect half of Afghanistan’s population: women.

— Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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