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No Time to Abandon Afghan Women

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Members of Congress and presidential candidates have advocated for deep cuts in U.S. foreign assistance to many countries around the globe. To follow that advice in Afghanistan would be a tragic mistake and a cruel setback to Afghan women.

Afghan women and girls have achieved significant social and economic gains over the last decade. With the support of the international community, millions of women have acquired an education, participated in community development programs, and gained access to health care. These achievements are among the few bright spots of the international mission in Afghanistan, and they must be protected as foreign troops begin to withdraw and political negotiations seek to end the war.

Much has gone wrong in Afghanistan, with corruption rampant and security deteriorating, but development programs to advance the social and economic wellbeing of women and children have been important successes. Education has been a priority for both the Afghan government and international donors.

In 2002 only 900,000 boys attended primary school. Today more than seven million girls and boys are enrolled in school. School attendance rates have increased eightfold since the dark years of Taliban rule. Girls now comprise 37 percent of the student population. More than 4,000 new schools have been built since 2002. The number of teachers has increased from 20,000 (all men) in 2002 to more than 150,000 today (almost 30 percent women).

Progress has been achieved in providing economic opportunities for women, primarily through community development grants in the National Solidarity Program (NSP). A quarter of the participants in democratically elected NSP councils are women, who are able to benefit from local development grants. Small-scale microcredit programs have multiplied, providing more than 1.5 million loans in recent years. The majority of loan recipients are women. Community grants and microcredit programs are giving many women an opportunity to earn a living and have greater mobility outside the home.

The availability of maternal health care has improved dramatically. During the Taliban era midwifery schools were shut down, and few trained attendants and health professionals were available. Afghanistan had one of the world's highest rates of maternal and infant mortality. Since then thousands of health facilities have been opened. There are now more than 22,000 trained health workers, almost 10 times the number a decade ago. More than 3,000 women have been trained as midwives, a sevenfold increase.

These health programs have had dramatic impacts in lowering rates of preventable death among babies and mothers. The latest Afghan governmentfigures, based on a survey conducted with support from USAID and the UN, show significant reductions in child and maternal mortality rates over the past decade. The rate of children dying before age five has dropped from one in five to about one in ten. The lifetime risk of a woman dying in childbirth has dropped from one in eleven to one in 50. These numbers translate into hundreds of thousands of saved lives among Afghanistan's most vulnerable people.

Despite the gains of the past decade, much work remains to be done. In rural communities where most Afghans live, only about a quarter of women deliver their babies with the support of a trained attendant. Vaccination rates and health services have improved, but preventable deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea persist. Primary school attendance has increased, but secondary school and higher education remain unavailable to most Afghan youth.

Funding for these successful development programs has come almost entirely from external donors, primarily the United States, the European Commission and the World Bank. It is critically important to sustain this support, even as military expenditures begin to decline.