2006 High School Essay Contest Winning Essay
Empowering Women, Rebuilding Society: The Role of the Foreign Service in Promoting Women's Rights in Afghanistan
BY EVA LAM
In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan to defend global security. In 2006, the US remains involved in Afghanistan to build a model for democracy in the Muslim world. The promotion of women's rights is integral to this effort. The US Foreign Service plays an important role in creating educational and economic opportunities for Afghan women. The work of the Foreign Service promotes gender equality, economic progress, and democratic values in Afghanistan.
Any examination of women's rights in Afghanistan should take place in the context of the dramatic progress made since 2001. The Taliban regime accorded women subhuman legal status. Women were banned from working outside the home, appearing in public without a close male relative, and attending school beyond age eight (Brown and Bokhari 7). The Taliban brutally punished women who violated these restrictions: government officials cut off the fingers of women with painted nails, publicly whipped women who showed their ankles, and stoned to death women accused of adultery (RA WA). For Western observers, this restrictive climate was most visibly symbolized by the burqa, a full-length robe covering the face and body with just a small slit for the eyes; Afghan women could only appear outside of the house in a burqa. In short, any woman who lived within the law lived under the total control of men.
The profound restructuring of the government since the fall of the Taliban has apidly reversed the situation for women. One of every five delegates elected to the loya jirga, the "grand council" convened in 2003 to draft a new constitution, was female (IRIN News). The constitution guarantees equal rights to all Afghans regardless of gender, and it reserves at least 25% of the seats in the lower house of parliament and in provincial councils for women (Coghlan). Certainly, the last five years have witnessed drastic improvements in women's political and legal rights in Afghanistan.
But legal equality would be meaningless for women who lacked the education and economic self-dependence to exercise their new rights. Years of repression left Afghan women with few vocational skills. Indeed, only fourteen percent of Afghan women are functionally literate today, and few work outside the home (Reichmann). To address these problems, the US Foreign Service has created a number of programs specifically designed to promote educational equity and economic opportunity for Afghan women and girls.
The Foreign Service has spent the years since the invasion implementing an array of educational projects to compensate for the appalling state of women's education under the Taliban and build a stronger foundation for the next generation of Afghan women. The US Agency for International Development (USA.ID) is in the process of building seventeen Women's Resource Centers, where women can receive literacy training and other services ("Women's Resource Centers"). The US-Afghan Women's Council, a partnership between Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs and the US Department of State, implements a number of educational programs, including a training institute for female teachers at Kabul University, an exchange with the University ofNebraska Omaha in which Afghan women educators receive training in the US and return to Afghanistan to train other local teachers, and a computer education program for Afghan women government officials ("Education"). USA.ID has also funded the reconstruction of more than 200 schools in Afghanistan, fourteen of which are all-girls' schools (State Department). Through both USA.ID and the US-Afghan Women's Council, the Foreign Service plays an integral role in teaching literacy to women and creating a generation of educated girls in Afghanistan.
Similarly, the Foreign Service is expanding economic opportunities for Afghan women. Women's Resource Centers provide job training and placement for women ("Women's Resource Centers"). The US-Afghan Women's Council has coordinated with non-governmental organizations to create community banks in several provinces, providing microfinance loans to female entrepreneurs in a project that will expand to serve more than 30,000 clients ("Microfinance and Business Development"). The Department of State and USA.ID jointly funded a delegation of Afghan women to the 2005 Global Summit of Women, a conference for female entrepreneurs (Monsen). Foreign Service Officers are providing Afghan women with the skills, opportunities, and capital they need to return to the formal economy after years of exclusion under the Taliban.
These Foreign Service programs have obvious benefits to the women who use them, but by promoting the status of women, they also improve Afghanistan's economic situation. The United Nations' 2002 Arab Human Development Report pointed out the detrimental economic effects of gender inequality, writing, "Society as a whole suffers when half of its productive potential is stifled." For myriad reasons, improvements in the state of female education provide benefits to the Afghan economy even greater than those gains that result from improving the education of boys. Educating women tends to boost farm productivity, improve children's health, and cut birth rates and reduce overpopulation (Coleman 82). Additionally, increasing women's earning potential "profits the community at large because women tend to invest more in their families than do men" (Coleman 84). Educating and empowering women benefits Afghan families and the economy as a whole, helping to stabilize the country and divert resources from the illegal opium trade.
Ultimately, achieving the full recognition of women's rights in Afghanistan will take more than a few projects; government intervention alone cannot create social change of the magnitude required to overcome years of oppression and silence under the Taliban. Yet against all odds, the Foreign Service has made remarkable progress in providing Afghan women with the education and vocational skills they need to make full use of their newfound political and legal equality. By teaching women to read, exposing them to the formal economy, and providing capital to entrepreneurs, the Foreign Service has introduced Afghan society to the possibility of women's economic equality. And by gradually rebuilding schools, training women teachers, and facilitating the education of girls, the Foreign Service is now laying the foundation for a generation of Afghan girls who are fully capable of revolutionizing the country by participating in politics and the economy as men's equals.
Brown, A. Widney, and Farhat Bokhari. Humanity denied: systematic violations of women's rights in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch. October 2001. Accessed 28 February 2006.
Coghlan, Tom. "Election hopes of Afghan women." BBC News. August 14, 2005. Accessed 28 February 2006.
Coleman, Isobel. "The payoff from women's rights." Foreign Affairs. May/June 2004.
"Education." US-Afghan Women's Council. 2005. Accessed 28 February 2006.
IRIN News. "Interview with Loya Jirga delegate Sa'era Sharif" United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. December 19, 2003. Accessed 28 February 2006.
"Microfinance and business development." US-Afghan Women's Council. 2005. Accessed 28 February 2006.
Monsen, Lauren. "Global Summit of Women promotes wider economic, political participation." USINFO (United States Department of State, Bureau of International Information Programs). June 21, 2005. Accessed 28 February 2006.
Reichmann, Deb. "Laura Bush meets Afghan women." CBS News. March 30, 2005. Accessed 28 February 2006.
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. "Some of the restrictions imposed by Taliban in Afghanistan." No date given. Accessed 28 February 2006.
United States. Department of State, Office of International Women's Issues. Report to Congress. "US support for Afghan women, children, and refugees." June 22, 2004. Accessed 28 February 2006.
"Women's resource centers." US-Afghan Women's Council. 2005. Accessed 28 February 2006.