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Why the little progress for women in Afghanistan stands risk of being lost

Monday September 6, 2021, By Janani Sampath

Since mid-August, social media and news outlets have been abuzz about the power transfer in Afghanistan. A new establishment has been set up with the Taliban at its helm as the US troops began withdrawing, following a two-decade jaunt. While a lot has been written about the impact–mostly on geopolitics– a sad story has unfolded on another front. Such power transfers always have a direct bearing on women. They constitute a marginalized section in places like Afghanistan, where they already have no claim on freedom or rights.

Less than half a century ago, the country was a haven for women professionals– they constituted 40 percent of doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and half the government employees.

However, in the last few decades of war from the time of Soviet occupation of the country, civil war, Taliban control for a few years, and the entry of the US, women have continued to bear the maximum brunt amid the upheavals.

How women always suffer

Social oppression of women has many faces here. Reports claim that domestic violence and abuse have been commonplace, though many do not report them. The resultant psychological impact has been dreadful– suicide attempts and suicides that get brushed under the carpet (women account for 80 percent of suicides in the country). Violence against women (at 90 percent) coupled with worrying health indicators like one of the highest rates of maternal mortality rate in the world, is a damning picture of the country, which is said to be the worst place in the world to be a woman, as revealed by several surveys.

Undoing little progress

Lack of social empowerment has also meant economic disempowerment. A study titled ‘Female labor force participation in Afghanistan: a case study from Mazar-e-Sharif’ published in 2019 summarizes the issue of lesser women in the workforce in the country, citing multiple factors like insecurity, domestic responsibilities, and unsafe environments. The study also noted that ‘substantial achievements have been made—schools for girls have reopened, young women are enrolling in universities, and women are being employed as teachers, doctors, and civil servants. Despite these achievements, there are still a substantial proportion of unemployed women. From 8.5 million active labor force participants, the unemployment rate for male Afghans stood at 22.6 percent in 2013-14, while the rate for female unemployment stood two and half times higher.’ The study has found that ‘educational attainment is positively associated with women’s participation in the labor market. Each additional year of education increases the probability of a woman being economically active. A woman with a bachelor’s degree has a higher chance to be employed in certain high-profile jobs. Years of schooling also increase the probability of a woman being self-employed.’

As per news reports, in 2019, women’s workforce participation in the country was about 22  percent. Though much lower than among countries with over 40 percent women workforce participation, if you look at the past data, the slow progress has been a sign of things getting better in the future.

Despite voting for the first time in 1965, it was only in 2001 women contested elections. The foray resulted in their representation at 27 percent in the single/lower house or Wolesi Jirga in 2018. The percentage was close to the representation of women in the 117th Congress in the United States in 2021.

The past is a mirror to the days coming ahead. During their five-year rule till 2001, the Taliban ensured that they closed most schools for girls, restricted their movement, and meted out severe punishment to the women for flouting diktats. A few hours after the Taliban took over, similar diktats made it to the news–women ordered to cover up, stop working and stay indoors.

Now, the only silver lining is the resistance shown by the women. For how long and to what extent will they achieve emancipation— time will tell.

Author Profile

Janani Sampath
Janani Sampath
With close to 15 years of experience in journalism across beats in multiple mediums, Janani Sampath is content editor, Diversity Digest.
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