A new chance for women

The long agony for Afghanistan’s women ended with the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The story of Farida Tarana, for example, is no longer unique and gives Afghan women increased hope for equal rights under Afghanistan’s progressive constitution.

Miss Tarana was among the first female contestants to appear on “Afghan Star,” the local version of “American Idol.” She impressed many by her performance of Afghan folk and pop songs, ascending to the No. 8 position on the widely watched TV program. Miss Tarana’s achievement was no small feat. Her debut came just a few years after the Taliban, who publicly executed women for immodesty and had banned all forms of music and entertainment.

But Miss Tarana went beyond the performance stage and into the political arena; she entered politics following her successful stint in entertainment. Last August, she ran in Afghanistan’s provincial council elections, winning the second-highest number of votes in the country out of 524 candidates that competed for 29 seats in Kabul’s provincial council.

Like Miss Tarana, thousands of other women are active in Afghanistan in various capacities. The first female provincial governor and district mayor in Afghan history are serving their constituencies. The key ministries of public health and women’s affairs are led by women, as is Afghanistan’s Independent Commission on Human Rights. At the same time, the Afghan Parliament continues to convene with a higher percentage of female representatives, 27.3 percent, than the legislative bodies of many of the most established democracies, including the U.S. Congress (15.2 percent) and British Parliament (19.7 percent).

Yet despite these important advances, the condition of women in Afghanistan is in need of urgent attention. One woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth, the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world (1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births). Mountainous terrain and weather conditions prevent timely medical attention to patients and pregnant women. Severe food shortages have resulted in chronic malnourishment among children, and 48 percent of Afghan women are iron-deficient.

Millions of girls cannot attend school because of security concerns or restrictive social norms. Just 12 percent of women 15 years and older can read and write, compared to 39 percent of men. The overall literacy rate for women between the ages of 15 and 24 stands at 24 percent, compared to 53 percent for men in Afghanistan.

This troubling situation is a legacy of decades of war and state collapse in the country. During the past 30 years of war, the needs of women stood neglected because Afghanistan did not have effective state institutions that could provide services to the people. Under the Taliban, women were relegated to the confines of their homes and deprived of education and basic human rights.

Afghanistan today is making efforts to recover from the effects of decades of utter desolation and destitution. Improving the condition of women is a priority in our national development strategy. In 2008, we launched a national action plan for the women of Afghanistan to provide a comprehensive, cross-ministerial approach to improving the condition of women. Indeed, we have a long way to go before we can catch up with the rest of the world, but we are working hard.

In the past eight years, schools and universities have opened their doors to a record number of women. Of the total 4.8 million children in grades one through six, 36.6 percent are girls. The number of girls in high school almost doubled from 2007 to 2008, from 67,900 to 136,621 students. Some 8,944 university students graduated in Afghanistan in 2008. Of them, 1,734 were female students.

Public health also has seen tremendous improvement over the past eight years. Up to 85 percent of the Afghan population has access to basic health care, up from just 8 percent in 2001. More than 1,650 professional midwives are employed by the ministry of public health, providing health care and childbirth services across Afghanistan. This has helped reduce infant mortality rates by 23 percent, saving 80,000 newborn lives each year.

In addition to taking these concrete steps, we are working to change societal mind-sets. In some parts of Afghanistan’s most traditional areas, attitudes hamper the progress of women. Unlike most governments in the world, the Afghan government not only makes and implements policies, but also functions as an agent of social change, working to ameliorate the traditional views that hold women back from fully developing their abilities and contributing to society.

We are partnering with local elders and religious figures to ensure that attitudes change through a community-centered approach. Through the National Solidarity Program, more than 22,000 Afghan women are actively participating along with men in more than 10,000 community development councils to assess local needs, receive and implement grants from the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development and lead project design and implementation.

Slowly, we are seeing progress. As Miss Tarana’s story reminds us, women are the pillars of Afghanistan. With enhanced attention to women’s issues, more than half of the Afghan population can be socially, economically and politically empowered to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan’s long-term development. The international community must help the Afghan government approach the task of empowering Afghan women as a continual process rather than as a single benchmark, for experience shows us that even legal equality does not translate into equal treatment.

M. Ashraf Haidari, the political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington.