Afghan Women's Situation a Test Case for Obama Administration's Foreign Assistance Policy

President Obama has signaled a change of course on the military side of U.S. policy in Afghanistan this week, replacing U.S. military leadership in the country. The jury is out on whether these are the right changes to be making and whether this new military policy will succeed, but there is another aspect to Afghanistan policy that is also in need of a serious fix: foreign assistance. While our focus is on the war on terror, we have yet to figure out how economic development, which is the crying need of Afghanistan, fits into our engagement in that country.

Reconstruction funding for Afghanistan since 2002, according to the Congressional Research Service, has amounted to some $32 billion, including seven billion of development funding directly from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently admitted there is little to show for it. This is especially true for Afghan women, whose situation was one of the big motivators for involvement in that country in the first place.

Seven years after the fall of the Taliban, as President Obama was making unprecedented changes to U.S. policy on global women's issues within his first 100 days, nearly 300 women in Kabul also did the unprecedented: they protested publicly in the streets against a new law promulgated this spring that they said rolled back hard-won rights for Afghan women. Speaking out at great personal risk, they said the Shia Personal Status law did not allow women from the Shia minority (who form about 10 percent of the population) the right to refuse their husbands sex unless they were ill, or leave their homes without their husbands' permission unless there was an emergency. After a domestic and international outcry, President Hamid Karzai announced a review of the bill, which is where it now stands.

The furor presented the Obama administration with its first important test case of how it would respond when women's basic human rights are under attack in a country of great U.S. strategic interest. It reacted by speaking out in one voice expressing dismay at the prospect of women's basic human rights being set back, which was heartening. But the crisis also raised the question of why Afghan women are still in this position, and highlighted clearly the need for a comprehensive approach to gender as a crucial part of U.S. foreign assistance policy.

In Afghanistan, like in most of the world, women are at greatest risk of being poor, and their lack of full economic, social and political participation results in greater poverty, slower economic growth, weaker governance, and lower living standards in a country, according to the World Bank. Empowering women to be full participants in Afghanistan's development is crucial if the country is to thrive. Our nation's objectives in Afghanistan of stability and a reasonably functioning economy and democracy cannot be met if half the country's population is unable to fully participate in reconstruction.

It is instructive to think about why all the assistance has so far produced so little in terms of gains for women or economic development overall. One major reason, ironically, is the exclusive focus on women rather than gender. Research around the world has consistently shown that programs which integrate gender have better outcomes for the whole community, but doing this does not simply mean running women's projects or training programs just for women. It means looking at men and women's roles in society and designing programs that take into account the barriers, inequalities and challenges that each faces. In most cases, such programs then must address women's inequality, which is so stark in most of the world, but they address the consequences for husbands, fathers and brothers who, in very poor communities, also have very little.

In many rural areas of Afghanistan, men are largely unemployed and often join the Taliban simply because they pay a consistent wage. A survey of more than 100 Afghan men and women who participated in U.S. assistance projects found that a well-intentioned but short-term U.S. aid focus on getting as many women as possible through training programs alienated men, who were skeptical of the programs to start with. If the programs then did not lead to increased income for the family, the result was often increased domestic violence, apart from little tangible benefit to the community.

It takes time to create a community-wide economic development approach that truly integrates gender, and it is a lot easier to answer to pressure for short term results from Congress with numbers of training programs conducted or micro-loans handed out. But our current approach in Afghanistan is alienating Afghans rather than building any sense of partnership with them, which is especially counterproductive in an environment of military escalation. Long-term economic development programs, which are locally led and truly benefit all members of a community, are the only successful models worth following. As the U.S. rethinks its military approach, it is also time to overhaul the way it is spending assistance dollars in Afghanistan so our engagement in that country can succeed.

Ritu Sharma is Co-Founder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide in the leading Washington D.C.-based organization advocating for U.S. assistance and trade policies that benefit women globally.