The combined efforts of the Government of Afghanistan, the international community and local civil society organisations have led to substantial progress for women and girls, including in education, political participation and their increasing economic role. Women’s empowerment has once again been raised as a critical issue for Afghanistan, after years of being pushed aside in favor of issues surrounding politics, the economy, and security. The National Unity Government (NUG) has committed to women’s empowerment, eradicating violence against women, and changing sexist societal mind-sets, recognising that without institutionalising the equal rights of women, the country will never be able to stabilise and develop in a sustainable way.
There are more women holding positions of power than at any other time in history: 27.7 per cent of the seats in parliament are held by women, four ministries and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission are led by women and three women have been appointed as ambassadors. Furthermore, three women have been appointed as ambassadors. Afghanistan is one of only two South Asia countries with a National Action Plan in place for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325, evidence of a commitment to promote women as participants in leadership and peace building.
There is still a lot of work to do and time and time again we are reminded of how fragile and reversible these gains are. UN Women is working to support the government’s ambitious roadmap for achieving gender equality, to ensure that we not only ensure this progress is not reversed, but also that it provides a platform for further empowerment for women and girls across Afghanistan.
Women and girls in Afghanistan continue to face persistent discrimination, violence, street harassment, forced and child marriage, severe restrictions on working and studying outside the home, and limited access to justice. According to a Global Rights study, 87 per cent of women in Afghanistan experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during their lifetime, with 62 per cent experiencing multiple forms. Traditional justice systems continue to work against women’s rights, undermining formal legal reform, and women who seek help to escape violence often face indifference or criminal sanctions for committing moral crimes.
The Elimination of Violence against Women law, which was passed by Presidential Decree in 2009, has the potential to contribute to improving women’s access to justice, provided it is effectively implemented. The Government has passed the Anti-Harassment Regulation and Family Law, and is now working, supported by UN Women, on implementation.
Women’s participation in the labour force has been rising steadily since 2001, reaching 19 per cent in 2016. About 64 per cent of Afghans agree that women should be allowed to work outside the home, however, they still face a multitude of barriers, including restrictions, harassment, discrimination and violence, as well as practical hurdles such as a lack of job experience, employment skills and education. The overall literacy rates of women in Afghanistan is 17 per cent, however, in some provinces that drops to under 2 per cent.
Today, more than 57 per cent of the population lives within a one-hour walk of a health facility, enabling many Afghans to seek medical attention. Since 2003, the number of trained midwives present at birth has more than tripled, reducing maternal mortality rates from 1,600 deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2002 to 396 in 2015. The fertility rate has also reduced dramatically, sitting at 5.1, a rate that drops even further to 2.8 for women with higher levels of education. The cost of accessing healthcare, however, is a huge burden for many Afghan families, and out of reach for many others, which has a close relationship with the neglect of women’s access to health.
Afghanistan is one of the youngest countries in the world, with 63 per ccent of its population aged under 24 and 400,000 new workers estimated to be entering the workforce every year for the next decade. More than 8 million students are enrolled in school, including more than 2.5 million girls, however, the regular targeting of girls attending the school, continued stigma against girls’ education, and increasing influence of violent extremism is posing increased challenges.
For the current planning cycle of 2013-2017, significant transitional events will occur within the political and security arenas that could negatively impact women if interventions are not made to ensure their active participation. Ensuring women’s participation in elections, peace negotiations, and overall engagement in governance and government at national and subnational levels will help preserve gains made to date and create resiliency in those institutions responsible for Afghanistan’s gender agenda.