As the United States convenes the NATO summit in Chicago this weekend, the fate of Afghanistan’s women is on my mind. This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the return of Afghanistan’s girls to the classroom. During the Taliban era, women were denied education. Women could not work, even when they were the sole providers for their families. Under the Taliban dictatorship, it was decreed that women should be neither seen nor heard.
By 2002, the consequences of such deliberate human cruelty were abundantly clear. Afghanistan faced a humanitarian crisis. Seventy percent of its people were malnourished, and 25 percent of children died before age 5. A decade ago, after years of war with the Soviet Union followed by the rise of the Taliban, basic infrastructure, such as roads and schools, lay in ruins. In rural areas, clean water and electricity are still luxury goods rather than the norm.
But the Afghan story is changing. Over the past 10 years, there has been remarkable progress. Four thousand schools have been built, and more than 100,000 new teachers have entered the classroom. Today, girls make up 37 percent of the 7 million Afghan students in primary and secondary schools. During Taliban rule, only 900,000 children, all male, attended school.
Adult learning has also accelerated. More than 62,000 Afghans attend universities. The co-educational American University of Afghanistan, which opened in 2006 with 50 students, has more than 1,700 full and part-time students and offers Afghanistan’s leading MBA program. This fall, a record 52 Afghans will come to the United States as Fulbright scholars. A basic literacy and math education program that I visited in 2008 is reaching more than 300,000 Afghan adults, 60 percent of them women.
Innovative private programs, many sponsored by businesses, foundations and charities, are also transforming Afghanistan. These private organizations risk safety and money to improve conditions for ordinary citizens. One example is the Chicago-based Arzu Studio Hope, launched in 2004 to employ Afghan women as rug weavers. What began as a business opportunity as part of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council has become a comprehensive revitalization project. Arzu, which means hope in Dari, provides employment, job training, education, basic health care and access to clean water for female employees and their families. When the lives of women are better and safer, everyone benefits — sons and daughters, husbands and wives.
Despite these gains, however, Afghanistan’s progress remains tenuous. A March 2 fatwa from the Ulema Council, which advises the Afghan government on religious matters, actively encouraged a return to shades of Taliban-era female repression, including support for husbands beating their wives. It said that women should not travel without a male relative and also declared men to be “fundamental” and women “secondary.” In this climate, Afghan women understandably fear losing everything.
Last fall, I received a letter from an Afghan woman who wrote encouragingly of refugees who are now home, girls who attend school, women who are able to work and participate in public life, and farmers who have reclaimed their land. But she added, “Though many victories have been won for the Afghan people, I fear it is all at risk, and the return of the Taliban is an impending threat.” The rippling consequences of such a return would be devastating.
Many of the vital gains that Afghan women have achieved over the past decade were made because of the sacrifice and support of the United States and the broader NATO alliance. The United States and NATO deserve international gratitude for their role in helping to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan. But now, as the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan changes, the world must remember the women of Afghanistan.
In 2001, the world’s eyes were opened to the horrors suffered by Afghanistan’s women. Leaders from government, business and civil society around the globe, as well as private citizens, stepped forward to support these women, sending a powerful signal that progress is possible only if it includes all of a country’s citizens.
But if this progress is to last, these business and educational investments must be protected and expanded. And, every bit as important, the Afghan government cannot negotiate away women’s rights. At their gathering, NATO officials have an opportunity to communicate that aid, investment and alliances are not guaranteed if women are simply to be treated as a bargaining chip.
Having already seen the terrible cost of denying the most basic of human freedoms, do we dare risk the consequences now of abandoning the women of Afghanistan?
Laura Bush was first lady from 2001 through January 2009. She is honorary chair of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and chairs the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.