Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan is a volunteer not-for-profit organization founded in 1996 with over ten chapters across Canada. The goals are to advance education and educational opportunities for Afghan women and their families; and to educate and increase the understanding of Canadians about human rights in Afghanistan. You can visit their website to find out more and find them on facebook too.
From being denied any participation in the social, economic and political life of their country, Afghan women have been carving out new spaces for themselves in public life. They fought for a constitution that grants men and women equality under the law. Women are represented in both houses of parliament in significant proportions, and can be found in the ranks of the civil service, in provincial councils, sitting on shuras (community-level councils), and currently in three cabinet posts at the executive level, one provincial governorship, and one mayorship. On a daily basis, women in civil society and in politics are fighting for progressive legislation. For instance, in 2009 they succeeded in passing the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, which criminalizes VAW, including rape. Girls’ public school enrollment has increased from 0% under the Taliban to around 40% today, representing some 3 million girls. Girls are in universities, women have re-entered the work force, and many are running businesses. They are playing the roles of innovators, change-makers and trailblazers. They are paving the way for the girls and women who will come after them.
The progress in Afghanistan has been palpable. Some examples of notable achievements since 2001 include:
– Eight million children in school, compared to less than one million in 2001 (mainly boy students in madrassahs);
– 85% of Afghans have access to basic healthcare, unlike in 2001, when less than 10% had access. Girls and women are free to work, attend school, and seek medical care, rights that were denied to them under Taliban rule;
– A Constitution is in place, and it grants men and women equality in the eyes of the law;
– There is a democratically elected government and a parliament that is gradually becoming a more forceful check on the executive, and has a higher percentage of women members than our own parliament in Canada;
– Afghanistan once had the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. However, this has steadily been decreasing since 2002 as midwife training programs have been established and access to healthcare is increased. The latest data puts maternal mortality at 500/100,000 (2010), compared to the UN’s estimate of 1600/100,000 in 2003;
– Several new highways have been built, connecting all major regions, and facilitating trade and economic development;
– Reforms to the judiciary are underway, and Afghan women have played an active role in introducing legislation that will better protect their rights such as the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law;
– Increased recruitment and growing capacity of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, including the recruitment and training of women in these fields;
– Successful introduction of country-wide inoculations for children;
– The growing impact of a strong Afghan feminist movement on reform and rights efforts;
– 22.5% real GDP growth rate in 2009 (adjusted for inflation), and a fast rising GDP per capita.
Growth for 2010 is estimated at 7.6%.
In a book called “Veiled Courage,” Cheryl Benard talked to hundreds of Afghan women living in refugee camps in Pakistan, when the Taliban were still in power in Kabul. She writes about how there was remarkably little acceptance among the women of the poor treatment they experience.
She says, “Afghan women, even those from very simple backgrounds, were embarrassed by their ignorance. Since this ignorance was statistically “normal”, a fate shared by almost all women and proclaimed to be a proper part of their place in the world, we might expect them to have been accepting of it, but such was not the case. Most women regarded their inability to read, and their general lack of knowledge and education, as a painful deficit. That’s interesting and noteworthy. It shows that even lifelong acculturation did not succeed in entirely stifling women’s sense of themselves or their personal aspirations. Individually and collectively, women felt ashamed that they had not been schooled. They viewed it as an injustice that education had been withheld from them. As little girls, they had been told that their brothers were more valuable and more intelligent, that men were their intellectual and mental superiors. By the time they were grown, most women had studied the men around them carefully enough to know that this was not entirely the truth, that the story of men’s universal brilliance and women’s mental incapacity would not hold water in real life.”
Four years ago, a group of school girls was attacked by men on motorcycles who sprayed acid in their faces as they walked to morning classes in Kandahar. More than a dozen of the students were seriously injured, two of them temporarily blinded. And yet, within a week these girls had returned to their classes at the Mirwais Mena school. One of the girls who suffered severe eye injuries was 17-year-old Shamsia, who said, “I will go to my school even if they kill me. My message for the enemies is that if they do this 100 times, I am still going to continue my studies.”
Since then, hundreds of girls’ schools have been burned down. Teachers have been murdered. Principals have been beheaded. Parents are threatened for sending their daughters to school. Besides the insecurity, there are often no textbooks, teachers’ salaries are not paid for months at a time, and schools are located far from villages. Few schools have desks or chairs, many are unheated in the winter and boiling hot in the summer, with no latrines and no clean water. But you know what? They go anyways. They keep showing up to their classes. And 175,000 Afghan teachers keep going to work in a country where being a teacher is almost as dangerous as being a soldier.
There is a crucial lesson in this. It’s that millions of brave Afghan girls are dedicated to pursuing their studies, in perilous and hostile circumstances, and their devotion is heartfelt, home-grown and hardy. There are challenges, but in light of the courage exhibited by Afghan women and girls, we must stand by them as they pursue their rights.
Every year, the Asia Foundation conducts a survey in Afghanistan, called the Survey of the Afghan People. One of the findings from the 2010 survey is that 87% of respondents countrywide agreed with the statement, “Women should have equal opportunities like men in education” (93% of women agreed and 82% of men). Almost all people aged 18 to 34 years agreed that women should be allowed to work outside the home, and this age group also strongly favours equal political representation between women and men. This is just a glimpse into a country where attitudes and behavior towards women are transforming at a rapid pace. But, of course, practicing what you preach is a different story. There is a long way to go to truly realize rights for women and girls. Community leaders, particularly from among the clergy, need to demonstrate leadership in speaking out against
prevalent crimes against women like domestic violence, rape and honours killings. Their impunity for perpetrators of such crimes needs to end. The Afghan Government in particular needs to back its rhetoric of non-discrimination with real action and political will to improve the status of women and hold those who violate women’s rights accountable. That is the only hope Afghanistan has for peace and prosperity: we know from a wealth of research evidence that states cannot rise above instability if their women have poor status.
We think that the best investment that can be made in Afghanistan is in educating women and
girls. The Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (AMICS), a national survey that measures key indicators to monitor progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, is a survey covering more than 13,000 households, more than 22,000 women, and nearly 15,000 children under age 5 and covered all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. It gathered data on over 80 indicators including everything from literacy and education, the prevalence of child labour, access to water and sanitation, health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS and more. The single greatest predictor for nearly every single indicator was the mother’s education level. You could set your watches by it. The more educated a mother is, the more likely she is to give birth with a skilled attendant present, and therefore more likely to survive childbirth, she’s more likely to register the births of her children, to marry later and give birth later, to have children who are attending school, who are vaccinated, who are protected from disease, who are well nourished, and who survive infancy and then childhood. Her children are less likely to be involved in child labour, to be abused, and they have more books in their home. Their access to water and adequate sanitation facilities is better, and they are wealthier. Educated mothers are healthier, they live longer, and so do their children.
Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan remains committed to its mission.
“We believe that to improve conditions of human rights, to end women’s oppression, and to provide opportunities for Afghan women to live their lives with dignity, certainty and purpose”, the international community, including military, developmental and diplomatic entities, must stay the course in Afghanistan. However, they must stay the course with a paradigm shift that dramatically improves security, escalates development, changes tactics, champion’s human rights, and vigorously addresses corruption at all levels of government and in the aid community.
Q&A Conducted with Lauryn Oates, Projects Director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan