Heather Barr is the Afghanistan research for Human Rights Watch. She is a lawyer and has lived in Afghanistan since 2007. “Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, she managed the Afghanistan anti-corruption and criminal justice programs of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the justice and human rights portfolio of the Afghanistan office of the UN Development Program”. 
Women have traditional roles in Afghanistan as mothers and managers of the household, but many women have always also contributed to financially supporting their families by working. Even when work outside the home was prohibited during the Taliban government, women worked, in professions such as carpet weaving and tailoring. There were also some women who were able to work as doctors, midwives, nurses and teachers during the Taliban times – often secretly.
With the end of the Taliban government, women and girls have seized new opportunities with great enthusiasm, and often with support from the men in their families. They have studied, become professionals, and taken jobs as teachers, doctors, lawyers, professors, parliamentarians, police officers, soldiers, government officials and pilots. Today you can find not only a parliament that is about 28% women, but also women who are ministers and leaders like the first female provincial governor, district governor, mayor, and provincial prosecutor.
There has been positive change for women in many areas. Almost four million girls are in school. Maternal mortality and infant mortality have fallen, and life expectancy has risen. Women are working outside the home and taking leadership roles, including in traditionally male-only professions. Women’s rights activists – both female and male – are speaking out more and taking to the streets in protests demanding women’s rights, in particular an end to violence against women.
Afghan women’s rights organizations are holding the government accountable for its legal obligation to uphold women’s rights. President Karzai signed a law making violence against women a crime and shelters have been created to protect women fleeing violence. Afghan women have become powerful spokespeople helping the international community understand the challenges facing Afghanistan and the continued need for international support for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
However none of these changes are necessarily sustainable. If the international community exhausted and embarrassed by a war that has been costly and ineffectual decides it just wants to forget about Afghanistan, the consequences for Afghan women will be deadly. International scrutiny and political pressure will be essential in ensuring that the Afghan government, President Karzai and whoever his successor will be, stick up for women’s rights. Funding from international donors is absolutely essential in ensuring that women and girls have continuing and improving access to education, healthcare, shelter and legal services – all crucial for women’s rights to be sustained.
If the international community walks away, this moment, when Afghan women and girls have made great progress but still face terrible difficulties, could become a high point from which there is a slide backwards toward the oppression Afghan women and girls faced during the Taliban.
In order to make progress for women sustainable, everyone who cares about this issue must put continuous pressure on the international community not to walk away from Afghan women. For example in October 2012 Human Rights Watch wrote to then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking the US to make a concrete and public plan for how it would support women’s rights in Afghanistan after 2014. The US government responded to this request by citing US-funded programming for women but declined to develop such a plan.
There are many donors present in Afghanistan, but the US is by far the largest and should lead by example on women’s rights. Without concrete commitments for the post-2014 period, there is a real danger that once the soldiers are home Afghanistan will be out of sight and out of mind for its international partners.
Challenges still remain for Afghan women, with only about half of Afghan girls are in school. Maternal mortality and infant mortality are among the highest in the world. Women in Taliban-controlled areas live under restrictions no different than those in 2001. There has been no real effort by ISAF to monitor the impact of security transition on women. Violence against women in endemic and rarely prosecuted, in spite of the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Women and girls fleeing violence are often treated as criminals rather than victims and prosecuted for “immorality.” Women in public life and women’s rights activists routinely face threats and too often are assassinated. Child marriage and forced marriage are very common and practiced with impunity. “Honor killings” are also all too common, and often go unpunished, as are the harmful traditional practices of baad (the giving of a girl to resolve a dispute) and badal (the exchange of daughters as brides).
Many women and girls face restrictions imposed by their own families, sometimes out of fear for their security and sometimes based in cultural views that impose grave restrictions on freedom of movement and access to services and employment for women and girls. The Afghan government is pursuing peace talks with the Taliban but women are completely marginalized in that process – they must be full participants in the process if they are to have a chance to protect their own rights from being bargained away.
Changing attitudes within society to ensure equality is a work in progress and change will come slowly but gradually. The only people who can change these attitudes are Afghan activists – female and male. Every girl who argues to be able to go to school is such an activist, and every brother or father who supports a girl going to school or a women working is one too. Attitudes are changing. Families are seeing that educated women and girls can contribute more to the well-being of their families and the development of the country. People are accepting that girls going to school or women going to work are compatible with their Islamic faith. Afghan activists will do the job of changing these attitudes – and they are taking risks every day to do so. The international community needs to offer them the support they need to continue to do so.
The most important thing for women to help develop their futures is access to education. Afghan women have found ways to be leaders even without education, but with education there is no stopping them. There needs to be an intensive on-going effort to ensure that schools for girls that have opened stay open, that areas without schools get them, and that education in these schools is of good quality.
There also needs to be university programs accessible to women and opportunities for overseas study. There also needs to on-going pressure for the Afghan government to include women in key positions where they can have the opportunity to assist other women. Female police, prosecutors, judges, doctors, nurses, midwives, professors, teachers, soldiers, governors, ministers and parliamentarians all have a crucial role in not just providing role models but also helping other women to advance.