The strict edicts issued by the Taliban during their five-year rule marginalized women and girls severely in all aspects of Afghan society. After the Taliban’s ouster in November 2001, Afghan women became hopeful about regaining their rights. The first signs of progress appeared as early as December of the same year, when a peace conference in Bonn, Germany, re-introduced the concept of gender equality, and ensured women’s participation in both an interim government and the drafting of a new constitution. In 2005, further advancement came as Afghan women achieved unprecedented levels of political representation through parliamentary elections. Despite these positive strides in legislation, indicators on the ground belie continuing vulnerability to discrimination and the denial of basic rights. This features explores the extent to which Afghan policies towards women have translated into actual change on the ground.
Before the Taliban came to power, women were active members of the educational system as students and teachers, representing 70 percent of teachers in the capital of Kabul in 1996. It was during the Taliban’s five year rule that women’s rights to education were revoked. The Taliban dismantled Afghanistan’s co-educational system, transforming many of its former state-run girls’ schools into all-male institutions.
One of the Taliban’s edicts in 1997 called for a nationwide ban on public education for all women and girls. Adhering to the letter of the law, but still determined to educate their children, Afghan women set up hundreds of schools in private homes. On June 16, 1998, however, the Taliban responded by issuing an edict stipulating that privately funded education must be limited to girls under eight and restricted to the teachings of the Koran. Making an example of Kabul, members of the Taliban shut down 100 private schools there. Women’s literacy rates across the country fell to some of the lowest in the world — 13 percent in urban areas and three to four percent in rural districts.
This increasingly oppressive environment necessitated secretively conducted classes, often putting the lives of female students and teachers at grave risk. One UN report stated that underground schools in private homes were reaching 300,000 Afghan children by 2001. The same report highlighted BBC educational radio broadcasts as one of few alternate resources available to women.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, educational resources for women have become more readily available. The right to education for both girls and women is anchored in articles forty-three and forty-four of the 2003 constitution:
Article Forty-Three Ch. 2, Art. 22
Education is the right of all citizens of Afghanistan, which shall be provided up to the level of the B.A. (license), free of charge by the state. The state is obliged to devise and implement effective programs for a balanced expansion of education all over Afghanistan, and to provide compulsory intermediate level education. The state is also required to provide the opportunity to teach native languages in the areas where they are spoken.
Article Forty-Four Ch. 2, Art. 23
The state shall devise and implement effective programs for balancing and promoting of education for women, improving of education of nomads and elimination of illiteracy in the country.
In addition, Afghanistan also signed the Millennium Development Goals program in 2004, of which two of the eight goals are specific to female literacy:
Target 3: Ensure that children, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling
Target 4: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education
In March 2002, 1.5 million children who had been barred from education returned to school. By December 2005, the number had grown to 5.2 million, of which almost two million were girls. Women’s literacy levels are estimated to be up by seven percent overall. Women are teaching and attending universities, and receiving degrees in disciplines ranging from medicine to police work. Although this progress is seen as a step in the right direction by women’s rights groups and international bodies alike, many believe female enrollment and literacy rates should be drastically higher given post-Taliban political reforms.
While Afghanistan’s new constitution recognizes the equality of men and women, many of its male population still do not. This conservative outlook is mirrored in the situation on the ground, with women seeking education continuing to be under threat. In February and March 2004, a UN envoy condemned the burning of approximately 30 girls’ schools in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch estimated that in 2005 and the first half of 2006, there were more than 204 attacks on teachers, students, and schools in the southern and northern provinces.
The Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that girl’s schools make up 30 percent of the 9,000 schools in the country, most of which are primary level. But with the threat of a Taliban resurgence and enduring conservatism amongst the male population, it is difficult to determine how many girls will continue on to a secondary education.
Afghan women’s right to work and freely choose their profession was written into the constitution in 1980, when Afghanistan signed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women an international bill of rights for women issued by the UN in 1979. This convention states that the right to work is an ‘inalienable right of all human beings.’ After Afghanistan became a signatory nation, women became key participants in the economy, holding positions as teachers, farmers, doctors, engineers, and equal partners in civil service. In 1996 however, the Taliban immediately revoked this right to work and introduced other oppressive edicts specific to women. As a result, a majority of educated female professionals went abroad, creating a considerable brain drain in the country. Women who were left behind faced deteriorating economic and social conditions, especially in the case of Afghanistan’s two million widows.
The Taliban’s first edict on women’s right to employment came in 1997, banning all women from working in public places. The health sector, where the Taliban had already imposed gender segregation, suffered most. After months of negotiations with the United Nations, the Taliban issued a revised policy on the employment of women. This new edict stated that employment in the health sector was limited to needy widows with no other means of support. Most widows were generally unskilled with no education and did not qualify for positions in this sector, forcing some into begging or prostitution. The ban on women’s employment was also a detriment to boys’ education, as the majority of teachers had been women.
Some women found alternate sources of income through international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But in 2000, the Taliban’s Council of Ministers banned Afghan women from working with both foreign and domestic NGOs. With few options available in the formal employment sector, some women set up home-based businesses in agriculture, animal husbandry, carpet weaving, tailoring, embroidery, soap making, candle making, honey production and baking. These forms of employment had very little impact on the status of women, requiring skills many did not have and offering poor pay. Also, the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s freedom of movement limited their access to the market place. In many cases, women had to rely upon potentially exploitative male middlemen in order to sell their products.
The new constitution of Afghanistan states that men and women are equal, officially encouraging gender equality and job and educational opportunities for women. In 2002, the transition administration allocated some $10 million to the Women’s Affairs Ministry to help strengthen women’s status in society. The Ministry has offices throughout the country and 75 percent of its employees are women. One of its main objectives is to help Afghan women find employment. Early signs of hope came in 2001 when the World Food Program conducted a major survey on food needs in Kabul. Of 3,612 surveyors employed, some 2,400 were women, the first significant boost to women’s employment since the fall of the Taliban.
In 2005, the Grameen Foundation USA estimated that 11 percent of entrepreneurs in Afghanistan are women. The southern and eastern provinces have seen less progress; whereas areas in the west like the Balkh province – and especially its capital city of Mazar-i-Sharif – have seen unprecedented levels of success. The Women’s Affairs department has started a program for women who want to open their own shops. Balkh’s provincial governor also approved the construction of a complex called Bagh-e-Zanana, or Women’s Garden, which will have 200 shops owned by women.
Still, female labor force participation in Afghanistan is among the lowest in South Asia at 35.8 percent. Afghan women remain restricted to employment in informal sectors like agriculture, where they comprise 65 percent of the workforce. In the case of the formal economy – e.g. education, health care, and service industries – women continue to be a minority. In contrast to the pre-Taliban era, when women made up 70 percent of the teachers in Afghanistan, the education sector today is largely dominated by men at all levels.
Low participation in the formal economy is attributed to low skills sets and low female literacy rates of 18 percent, compared to 50 percent for men. Also, selling products in the market continues to be a major obstacle for women due to limited mobility caused by a lack of security.
By the end of the Taliban’s five-year rule in 2001, the condition of Afghanistan’s health care system was near-total despair. Women and children were the main victims, with standard health indices being among the worst in the world – one quarter of children died before the age of five, with a mortality rate of 165 deaths for every 1000 live births per year. The chance of a mother dying in child-birth was also the second highest in the world with 17 deaths for every 1000 live births per year. Life expectancy for women was 46 years. Although the shaky foundation of the health care system was attributed to socio-economic factors such as drought, earthquakes and war-driven displacement, it was undoubtedly exacerbated by Taliban policies.
Under the Taliban, health care providers were predominantly located in urban areas, as most hospitals and health care centers in the countryside were destroyed during the civil war. The Taliban perpetuated the uneven distribution of medical care by issuing an edict in 1998 that introduced gender segregation in the health sector. Men and women could no longer inhabit the same building, let alone room. To make matters worse, the Taliban’s ban on female employment further restricted women’s access to health care and contributed to the low doctor-patient ratio of one physician for every 50,000 people in the country. As a result, the percentage of women with access to even the most basic health services plummeted to a mere 12 percent.
In 1999, foreign intervention by international bodies like the Red Cross and the United Nations led the Taliban to relax the ban on female employment in the health sector. Approximately 40 female medical students, who had been forced to leave Kabul University before receiving medical degrees, were allowed to continue their education. And in 2000, the authorities in Kandahar permitted the World Health Organization and the Office of the Resident Coordinator of the UN to start a nursing school for 40 female and 50 male nurses. Still, according to the WHO, by 2001 only 12 percent of deliveries in Afghanistan were attended by trained health workers.
Fatal illnesses included easily curable diseases like diarrhea and easily preventable diseases like tuberculosis. Due to a lack of even basic health care, diarrhea was estimated to kill 85,000 children a year. Immunization levels were extremely low due to the high costs of injections, and a lack of health care professionals to perform innoculations. Tuberculosis rates were among the highest in world – approximately 133,000 cases by 2001, of which 70 percent were females aged 15 to 45. Lack of immunization spurred a measles epidemic during the spring of 2000, killing one thousand children. Undernourishment and inadequate health care also resulted in a high rate of birth complications and giving rise to disabilities such as cerebral palsy.
In 2001, health care became a priority for the new interim government. Article fifty-two of the 2003 Afghanistan constitution stipulates that:
Article Fifty-two Ch. 2, Art. 30
The state is obliged to provide free means of preventive health care and medical treatment, and proper health facilities to all citizens of Afghanistan in accordance with the law. The state encourages and protects the establishment and expansion of private medical services and health centers in accordance with law.
In March of 2003, the interim government also produced The Basic Package of Health Services for Afghanistan — a policy paper outlining both challenges and tangible goals for the Ministry of Health. Some of the most glaring problems identified in the package were a grossly deficient, and even absent, infrastructure; a health system that is top-heavy with doctors who are not trained to deal with priority, community-level problems, and who lack public health expertise; poorly distributed resources; health care delivered on a project basis by many distinct, relatively uncoordinated service providers, as opposed to health care delivered in accordance with a clear and coherent national health policy; and lack of practical, useful and coordinated information systems for management decision-making. The package highlights seven major target areas: maternal and newborn health, child health and immunization, public nutrition, control of communicable diseases, mental health, disabilities, and essential drugs.
In 2006 an assessment of the Afghan public health sector was conducted by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Indian Institute of Health Management, surveying more than 8,200 households in rural areas in 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The study found that public health care in Afghanistan is improving steadily and the Ministry of Public Health is slowly getting closer to meeting its goals. Key indicators of improvement since the fall of the Taliban:
- In line with the Ministry of Public Health’s goal of equitable health care, more female patients than male patients used outpatient services, and the poor were more likely to use public sector services than the non-poor.
-Infant mortality rates have dropped in 2000-2006 from 165 deaths per 1000 live births to 129 deaths per 1000 live births. In the same period, the under 5 mortality rate has dropped from 257 deaths per 1000 live births to 191 deaths per 1000 live births.
-The percentage of women in rural Afghanistan receiving prenatal care from a skilled provider increased from an estimated 4.6 in 2003 to 32.2 in 2006. Although there have been great strides, a March 2005 World Bank report noted that an estimated 40 percent of all basic health facilities still lack female staff, maintaining constraints on women’s access to good health care. The level of female involvement in the health sector, however, appears to be gradually increasing as in May 2006, women made up nearly a quarter of medical school graduates from Kabul Medical University.
Afghanistan possesses a cultural legacy of conservatism characterized by a strong division of gender roles. Political, economic, and social decision-making has been traditionally male-dominated. In the latter part of the 20th century, women were making steps forward, being granted the right to both employment and education. The Taliban’s rise to power in 1996, however, reversed much of this progress and exacerbated the plight of Afghan women.
The Taliban’s strict social code marginalized the role of women in the public sphere by confining them to their private homes and enforcing the wearing of the burkha’s heavy garment covering the entire body with only a mesh window to see through. Some Afghan women have traditionally worn the head scarf; however it was not until the Taliban’s regime that a dress code or punishment for its violation was imposed by the state.
The Taliban’s policies also extended to matrimony, permitting and in some cases encouraging the marriages of girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80 percent of Afghan marriages were considered to be by force.
Most Afghan women quietly submitted to the Taliban’s strictures in fear of the consequences often brutally enforced by the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice. These religious police regularly beat women as punishment for a broad spectrum of violations: exposing ankles, being outside without a male relative, laughing loudly, wearing shoes that made noise when walking, and/or wearing the wrong type of burkha. These penalties were often meted out on the spot without a right to be heard or any due process. A United Nations Economic and Social Council report from 2000 stated that there were several prisons where hundreds of women were arbitrarily detained in very poor conditions. In Kandahar province, a women’s prison in Karez Bazaar was said to hold more than 400 women. In Nezarat Khan Prison, one woman was allegedly arrested for simply speaking to a man in the street.
The religious police also punished women who committed adultery and fornication. The justification for these punishments was anchored in the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia Law (Islamic Law). When alleging rape, women had to present the testimony of four male witnesses. If they failed to provide this testimony, they faced flogging or even stoning in the case of adultery. One of the two was the outcome in most cases.
The Taliban’s policies towards women and the high number of domestic abuse cases resulted in various consequences for Afghan women, from depression to self-immolation.
In 2004, Afghans adopted a new constitution that recognizes the United Nations Charter, the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and itself devotes two articles to human rights:
Article Six Ch. 1, Art. 6
The state is obliged to create a prosperous and progressive society based on social justice, protection of human dignity, protection of human rights, realization of democracy, and to ensure national unity and equality among all ethnic groups and tribes and to provide for balanced development in all areas of the country.
Article Fifty-Eight. Ch. 2. Art. 36
The State, for the purpose of monitoring the observation of human rights in Afghanistan, to promote their advancement and protection, shall establish the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan.
Any person, whose fundamental rights have been violated, can file complaint to the Commission. The Commission can refer cases of violation of human rights to the legal authorities, and assist in defending the rights of the complainant.
Still, Afghanistan remains plagued by the legacy of Taliban rule as human rights violations continue. The Council on Foreign Relations reported that an Afghan rights watchdog registered 704 cases of violence against women this year, but noted that cultural taboos discourage accurate reporting of such incidents. Amnesty International relates that women continue to be subject to attacks upon their persons and harsh punishments proscribed by local religious councils.
In a 2007 article published by the UN Commission on Human Rights, Dr. Sima Samar, the head of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan, said, “Some past violations still continue: arbitrary detentions, private jails, the torture of prisoners and detainees [some] police still think it is their right to torture a suspect or culprit. Forced marriages and land grabbing are among the top violations that take place a lot. Lack of awareness [of human rights] is very widespread. Meanwhile there is no access to justice, there are no proper courts and some [in which] cultural practices have influenced local courts. If a woman goes to court she is seen as bad and of ill repute.”
Despite the recognition of human rights in Afghanistan’s constitution, the number of reported female suicides has increased. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 250 cases of suicides, including self-immolation victims, were registered in the first six months of 2007. In contrast, only five cases were recorded in 2006. The increase in reports suggests that officials are no longer hiding suicide cases. But the fact that female suicides are occurring at an increasing rate indicates there are still problems to be addressed.
Herat doctor Nesar Ahmad Ferehmand, who regularly treats self-immolation victims, attributes the problem to women’s fight to assert their rights: “In Kabul, women probably don’t have as many problems because they have more rights – they are accepted in society and they are free to work and study. In Kandahar, women have no rights and they have accepted that they should not go outside the house or work. But in Herat women are struggling to get their rights, they are trying to go out and work and study but the men in their family are sometimes opposed to this and that’s what creates this problem.”
The 1964 constitution of Afghanistan introduced universal suffrage and equal rights for women. It is estimated, that 10 to 15 percent of Afghan women, pre-Taliban, were engaged in leadership positions. During the Taliban regime, however, women were completely excluded from the political arena.
In December 2001, less than a month after a U.S. led coalition ousted the Taliban regime, the United Nations sponsored an Afghan peace conference in Bonn, Germany. The resulting agreement established the mechanisms that would govern the creation of Afghanistan’s new government. One such mandate was to foster the political participation of women in constitutional deliberations and the interim administration.
Chapter V, Final provisions, article 4 states:
The Interim Authority and the Special Independent Commission for the Convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga will ensure the participation of women as well as the equitable representation of all ethnic and religious communities in the Interim Administration and the Emergency Loya Jirga.
On January 4, 2004, the Constitutional Loya Jirga approved a new constitution and government structure. All citizens were granted equal rights and in the subsequent presidential election, Hamid Karzai’s landslide victory made him Afghanistan’s official president. Massouda Jalal, a female physician and U.N. staff member from Kabul, was the only woman who stood for the presidency, going on to win 1.1 percent of votes — the sixth highest number of votes out of 19 candidates.
Afghanistan held its landmark legislative elections in September 2005. The constitution reserved 25 percent of the lower house and 17 percent of the upper house of parliament for women. While overall voter participation was down from the 2004 presidential election, turn out by the female population was exponentially higher.
Despite the parliamentary election’s relative success, women only accounted for 12 percent (328 out of 2707) of candidates for the lower house and 8 percent (247 out of 3025) of candidates for the upper house. Human Rights Watch interviewed several female delegates and found that the low number in female candidates could be attributed to the continuing intimidation of women in the political arena.
The same report also found that women’s voter registration and turnout rates fell far behind men’s in the regions with the worst security. Afghanistan’s southern provinces are among its most conservative and had appallingly low female registration rates – 9 percent in the Uruzgan province, 10 percent in Zabul, and 16 percent in Helmand.
Most female candidates in the parliamentary elections also chose to run without a party affiliation. This is partly attributed to their fear of being used to fulfill a quota. Human Rights Watch interviewed one woman who was providing candidate training and awareness programs that said, “We are telling women to be decision-makers, don’t be used. The political parties are including them as members, but not in decision-making. They are using women only as a symbol.” Many of the Afghan political parties are also composed of ex-warlords and Malalai Joya, an MP from the Farah province, is a staunch opponent of their inclusion in the government. Another open critic of their participation is female MP Shukria Barakzai who, six years after the removal of the Taliban, still receives death threats.
SOURCES: United Nations; BBC News; Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights; Radio Free Europe; Middle East Research and Information Project; Foreign Policy in Focus; Johns Hopkins Public School of Health; Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit; U.S. State Department; Amnesty International; ReliefWeb; World Bank; United States Institute of Peace; “Forced Marriages to Blame for Self-Immolation by Afghan Women” by Dr. Nesar Ahmed Ferehmand