Women’s Role in Rebuilding Afghanistan

The determination shown by Malala Yousufzai, a young Pakistani girlt o receive an education, despite the brutal assault on her by the Taliban has garnered global support for women’s rights. In her recent speech at the UN, Malala’s statement that“one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world” has reverberated across the world and exemplifies the faith that Taliban induced fear cannot suppress the voice of millions of women desirous of seeking an education. Education, especially of women, acts as a counter to the ideologically regressive and conservative policies of radical Islamists who declare that anything to do with women’s rights is un-Islamic. In Afghanistan, as we move closer to the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan in 2014, perhaps a focus on female literacy along with other initiatives can lead to a diminishing of Taliban influence in the lives of the people and contribute to a more durable peace.

Shukria Barakzai,an Afghan politician, journalist and entrepreneur, and a prominent Muslim feminist labelled as the “woman who the Taliban and NATO Fear”, is currently a Member of Parliament in Afghanistan and a probable contender for President in the 2014 elections.She talks of growing up in a pre-Taliban Afghanistan “playing football,volleyball,writing adolescent fiction and eventually choosing to study physics” and how the situation turned worse during the Taliban occupation where she was flogged on the streets when found without a male escort.“Most people think of Afghani women as victims,” she says, “victims of violence, of forced marriages, of terrible rates of maternal mortality.  Well, this is all very true. But it is also true that countless women, smart and beautiful and brave, will not bow their heads and will not be victims anymore.” This sentiment needs support to ensure a durable peace in war torn Afghanistan.

However, the mindless imposition of “rights” can also prove to be a failure when not in consonance with the cultural fabric of the society. Women’s rights have been central to the war in Afghanistan. When Cherie Blair and Laura Bush joined forces to bolster the rationale for invasion back in 2001, the West developed a passionate concern for the position of women in the country.There were films, books and documentaries about the high rates of maternal mortality, girls being married off young and low levels of female literacy. There was an assumption that it only required an invasion for women to spontaneously rise up and throw off their burqas.However, change has proved slower than expected. A major achievement however has been in education where over 2 million girls attend school, although there is still a high dropout rate and the numbers going on to secondary school are small. Nevertheless, the fact is that the conservative nature of rural Afghanistan has not changed fundamentally. Despite the colossal aid to Afghanistan over the past decade, the impact on the entrenched attitudes shaping women’s lives has been minimal. More intervention in the field of education is required and could be a potential game changer.

Foreign pressure ensured that the constitution and the country’s legal system enshrined women’s rights, but the reality is very different. There are only a handful of female judges and even when women do have the courage to take a case to the police, they face entrenched discrimination.While women’s empowerment is the need of the hour, its gender dimensions need to be addressed. Positive change will follow with a gendered inclusive approach considering that many Afghan women still cannot step out of the house without permission from a male member in the family.{C}[1]

India can play a considerable role in providing sustainable solutions to Afghanistan’s growth story by promoting women’s empowerment. An educated, self-sufficient woman goes on to affect her family, community and a nation as a whole in a positive manner. To tap into this field will further enhance India’s standing in Afghanistan as well as strengthen relations between the two countries.So far,India has invested 2 billion dollars in rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure,health, transport, communications, enabled cultural exchanges and so on but investing in human capital, keeping women as the focus could lead to long lasting impact.

A project scheme containing numerous modules ranging from education, health, governance, skill and capacity building could be proposed to the locals keeping in mind the cultural contours of Afghanistan. A holistic developmental model can only be realised if both men and women are educated about its outcomes. Programmesfor Afghan women, conducted in both Afghanistan and India, and explained through audio-visual training workshops in their own language could prove useful in empowering Afghan women. As a follow up intervention, sponsoring and training of two to three thousand Afghan women in India every year on sponsorship in specific disciplines could help in empowering women and changing attitudes within the country. With respect to the 2 billion dollar aid India has already provided, this would prove to be a low cost investment with a potential to yield better results. Training programmes could cover the following:

Education

Five hundred scholarships are already been given out to Afghan students by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. At least fifty per cent of these should be reserved for women. An effort to bring awareness about disciplines like women and gender studies, political science, good governance, technology, medicine etc. amongst women will broaden their range of options, which they can apply in their respective fields.A Horyan, an Afghan woman studying zoology at the University of Pune says that Taliban rule subverted women’s education but now some families are encouraging and supporting their choice to go abroad and work. She intends to go back and teach in Afghanistan while citing the dearth of professors in her own country.

Governance

Afghanistan is still to have an Afghan Women’s commission to secure rights of women within the country. The National Commission for women in India could play a pivotal role in lending their expertise and providing training to future women leaders of Afghanistan. Training modules should also be prepared to facilitate interaction with women leaders at the Panchayat level to encourage women’s participation at the local government level in Afghanistan. Fellowships could be organised for women to engage with Parliamentarians, which will sensitise them towards various facets of governance mechanisms.

Health and Sanitation

Under the Small Development Project Scheme, India has built basic health clinics in the border provinces of Badakshan, Balkh, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Nimroz, Nooristan, Paktia and Paktika. It would perhaps be a more sustainable model if women from the community are imparted training in health care, child nutrition etc. In the last few years, the maternal mortality rate has gone down from nine per cent to two per cent because of better infrastructure and awareness amongst women regarding better health care.One woman impacts the whole community, therefore hygiene and sanitation training for women from the poverty stricken areas will help curb diseases emanating from unhygienic conditions.

Capacity Building

A large number of rural women in Afghanistan rely on informal economic sectors like basket weaving, knitting, food processing, handicrafts and agriculture. These women could be trained to replicate community livelihood projects(self-help groups) on the lines of SEWA{C}[i]{C}. Forums like Dastkaar{C}[ii]can play an instrumental role in expanding the market outreach for women’s artisans establishing a continuous source of income and at the same time providing a platform to enhance their skills in producing handicrafts.

Conclusion

Indian intervention to assist in empowerment of Afghan women, keeping in mind their cultural backgrounds could yield long-term dividends. Women empowerment will have a direct bearing on community life in Afghanistan. One woman has the potential to change many lives.While it is clear that the Pashtun culture is still regressive in its approach towards women’s rights, need based opportunities created for women will definitely lead to positive response. After all, Afghanistan has given to the world several indomitable women, one of them being Malalai Joya, known as the “bravest woman in the world” for her courage to speak up against the warlords in the Afghan Parliament.

The author is a Research Assistant at CLAWS.

Views expressed are personal

[1]{C} http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/sep/26/afghanistan-women-what-went-wrong

[i] Self Employed Women’s Association

[ii]{C}http://www.dastkar.org/organisationalmap.htm

Original Source: Centre for Land Warfare Studies

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