Anyone who accepts even baseline targets for women’s rights, such as the right to physical safety, the opportunity to generate income and the opportunity to achieve education, should be concerned that these rights have fallen short in many parts of the world and, in some cases, have fallen back.
In Afghanistan, opportunities for women have been in constant flux, increasing under Mohammad Zahir Shah in the 1960s, declining sharply during the Afghan civil wars and Taliban rule, and climbing again under the current Afghan government. But this progress, which includes improved literacy and access to the workplace, has faltered over the past two years. President Hamid Karzai decided to appeal to conservative majorities in 2012 by supporting a religious edict that said women’s needs were secondary to those of men and that women should not meet with unrelated men in public. I expect the Afghan government to continue a backward march as it seeks to pull conservative constituencies away from alternate, insurgent-based local governments.
Problems such as these in Afghanistan, and similar problems facing women in rural India and Africa, will not be solved by foreign education or advertising campaigns. Nor will representative democratic movements cure these ailments: Representative democracies in these contexts would merely reflect the popular male consensus against women. Instead, a possible solution is economic growth. The relative power of female workers in Chinese factory cities such as Dongguan suggests this, as do limited cases in Afghanistan.
I was fortunate to participate in a foreign-based infrastructure repair program that hired more than 2,400 women in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013. The majority were widows, most of whom had been forced into starvation conditions by their husbands’ families. Interviews with these women suggested that their positions within their families improved when they were able to earn money. These benefits, in turn, disappeared once the projects ended and the widows brought home their last paychecks.
The case of the widows suggests critical goals for any first step toward equality. First, opportunities must open up in socially acceptable contexts. In Afghanistan, this includes work from home; for instance, some women in our program sewed clothes for laborers or wove metal cages used to hold rocks for erosion-control projects.
Second, women should have the means to keep the money they earn, or at least some of it. Recently, women in many countries have done this by receiving payment through mobile phones, using programs such as Mobile Money or M-Paisa. While men often take cash forcibly from their sisters, wives or daughters, they are not in the habit of reading through text messages to search out payment histories. These messages also can be deleted without affecting the money earned. In some cases, women who have managed to keep their earnings have pooled their assets in order to receive microloans, creating a beneficial cycle.
The simplest cellphones have helped women in Afghanistan in another way: They are popular tools for literacy training through a free SMS-based language training program.
Women in the United States made great leaps forward during World War I and World War II, when labor shortages allowed them to prove themselves in factories. Modern technology can allow similar value creation for women across the world, providing them with roles as income earners, increasing first their value within their families and, in the long run, their value within society. This change will not be easy, but it can happen surprisingly fast. If it is possible for women’s groups in the United States to work together to identify trade- and service-based employment opportunities for the most severely oppressed women around the world, we could see widespread meaningful social revolution within a generation.
Afghani Barakzai, who lives in Washington, was the administrative manager and Mobile Money program manager for Central Asia Development Group, a USAID-funded organization, in southern and eastern Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013.