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IAF Editorials
Education is the Key to Empowering Afghan Women
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By M. Ashraf Haidari After thirty years of war and destruction, Afghanistan remains on the bottom of the human development index with the worst social indicators among women, who together with children constitute more than half of our population. Beyond protective security concerns, the only way to empower women in Afghanistan’s traditional society is through enhancing their access to primary and higher education inside or outside the country. We know from the experience of women in the developed world, of course, here in the United States or Europe, where women were not fully enfranchised as early as last century until they were able to acquire higher education and became financially independent. A least developed country, Afghanistan has much to do in order to catch up, following on the footsteps of the developed world. Indeed, Afghanistan’s economy could hardly grow on a sustainable basis without half of our population contributing to the reconstruction and development process of the country. In spite of much effort by various international organizations to promote gender equity in Afghanistan, there are very few programs that help Afghan women gain higher education, particularly abroad. One key exception is the US-based Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, which has managed to enlist the support of a dozen American universities to grant four-year scholarships to qualified Afghan girls with leadership skills to study in the United States. Such programs need to be funded generously in order to meet Afghanistan’s urgent demand for developing our cadre of female leadership to ensure equality between women and men under our progressive constitution. And needless to say, with Afghan women educated, their children will be healthy and educated too, who together will contribute to a productive labor force that is needed to integrate with the global economy. Afghan women welcome the renewed commitment by the United States to our country’s stabilization, not only militarily but also through increased social and economic development assistance. President Barack Obama firmly committed to protecting the basic human rights of Afghan women and children when he announced the new US strategy for Afghanistan on March 27, 2009. For Afghan women, no human right is more fundamental than the right to an education inside or outside our country. Prophet Mohammed (PBU), whose wife was a businesswoman and equivalent of a female CEO today, often told his followers: “Seek knowledge, even unto China,” meaning go in quest of education wherever possible. Over the past eight years since the end of gender apartheid under the Taliban, Afghan women have made considerable progress, participating in the political life of our country. From the Bonn Agreement to the drafting, reviewing, and finally adopting Afghanistan’s new Constitution, women were involved every step of the way. Afghan women played a seminal role in each process from the Emergency and Constitutional Loya Jirgas to the presidential (2004) and parliamentary (2005) elections. Their participation in these historic processes have not only helped establish Afghanistan’s state institutions but also ensured that women become equal partners to men in leading these institutions forward to serve our nation. Therefore, Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution affirms women’s equality to men before the law, and Article 83 guarantees women 27 percent of the seats in the Lower House and 17 percent of the seats in the Upper House of the Afghan parliament. Beyond the constitutional guarantees, Afghan women set out to participate and campaign hard in the national elections. More than 40% of the registered Afghan women turned out to vote in the presidential elections and more than 50% women risked their lives to vote in the parliamentary elections. Afghan women enjoy the deep respect, support and commitment of President Hamid Karzai to their Constitutional rights and the implementation of those rights through various mechanisms established in the government so far. President Karzai has called into question the constitutionality of the recently passed Shi’ite family law, which discriminates against women. The law allows men to restrict women’s movement, except in emergency situations, or to engage in marital sex without consent. These articles clearly contradict Afghanistan’s progressive constitution, which provides women and men with equal rights. On April 19 in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, President Karzai stated, “I have instructed—in consultation with the clergy of the country—the Ministry of Justice, that the law be revised and that any articles that is not in keeping with the Afghan constitution and Islamic Sharia must be removed from this law.” Despite landmark achievements by the Afghan women, the challenges facing them are many and daunting. Today, Afghan women list insecurity as the number one obstacle to their progress in any area. Eight years on, the Taliban have expanded their presence where the government is absent, particularly in the countryside where most women live and where the terrorists daily carry out suicide attacks against military and soft targets. The Taliban have targeted and killed female teachers, and burned down hundreds of girls’ schools. They will continue their campaign of terror in Afghanistan so long as their leadership remains intact in Pakistan where they find safe havens, arms, and ideological support. Insecurity in Afghanistan is also due to a lack of international assistance resources that has resulted in weak state institutions. Without capacity and resources, most of Afghan state institutions—including those focused on women—are unable to enforce the adopted legal framework, provide basic public services, and generate employment for the people. The Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs is a prime example of both lacking capacity and the necessary budgetary resources to execute its broad mandate nationwide. Its annual $1.3 million budget is dwarfed by the tens of millions of dollars spent each year by non-state international organizations in Afghanistan. Yet, it is the justice sector that remains the most under-reformed due to a lack of international attention and resources from the beginning. It is unfortunate to know that Afghanistan’s 30 million population has some 60 female judges, 35 prosecutors, 70 attorneys, and very few defense attorneys. More than half of these women may hold a four-year degree which may not be in a legal field. And of these women, who do show up to work, lack a physical office with proper equipment to carry out their duties. Women are the pillars of any society including Afghanistan. By enhancing attention to women’s basic needs such as education, more than half of our population can be empowered to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan’s long-term development. Afghan women have done their part over the past eight years, and will continue to do so as long as we stand by them. The international community must continue to do theirs through partnerships—such as the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women—to help ensure gender equality in the Afghan society now and on the long run. M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is haidari@embassyofafghanistan.org

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Thu, May 21, 2009 07:42 PM (about 130745 hours ago)
Thank your for your writing. I found it very informative. Pamela J. Hanson
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