Bomb explosions are a daily occurrence in Nangarhar Province, a region of Afghanistan overrun by ISIS fighters. Simple routines, such as going to work, visiting family or running out for groceries, leave families sickened with fear and anxiety over the possibility of never seeing their loved ones again. In this political climate, the prospect of attending school for 17-year-old Zahra, like many women across Afghanistan, is out of the realm of imagination.
Zahra attended school off and on alongside her eldest brother up until the age of 10. She was able to learn to read and write in Pashto. But it became increasingly difficult for her to continue her education once she was older because of growing security concerns and traditional norms on women attending school away from the home.
Zahra’s father recognized the importance of learning, but the nearest public school was a dangerous 45 minute commute by foot through ISIS-held areas, where violence against women was a looming threat. He was not willing to risk the safety of his daughter for low-quality public school education and he was unable to afford expensive private schooling. But more than that, he was afraid of being criticized by neighbors if they discovered his daughter was traveling alone each morning to attend school. Instead, Zahra’s father hoped she would one day find a good husband to marry who could provide for her.
But these obstacles did not stop Zahra from dreaming and realizing the role education can play in empowering women. “If you teach a single woman,” she said. “You will teach an entire family.”
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Women’s Initiative to Strengthen and Empower (WISE) co-hosted a panel discussion with the Embassy of Afghanistan on the role of men in empowering Afghan women. The purpose of the panel was to highlight the complex gender dynamics impacting the movement for women’s rights.
In a country ravaged by decades of war, Afghanistan has one of the highest gender disparities in education in the world. According to the World Bank, the literacy rate for young women between the ages of 15 and 24 is 46 percent. While there have been significant improvements since 2001 after the fall of the Taliban, women are still lacking far behind men in education, much of it stemming from early marriages, poverty and safety concerns. Limited access to education has been a significant barrier to employment with an estimated 23 percent unemployment rate among Afghan women. This leaves many women economically dependent on male relatives and without decision-making powers.
International donors, alongside Afghan governmental efforts, have invested billions of dollars to rebuild damaged infrastructure and empower women. But because stigma surrounding women independence continues to prevail, women fear breaking from tradition at the risk of facing intimate partner violence at home. Without also engaging men to alter Afghan society and internalized cultural norms on gender, women will continue to be chained to the cruel cycle of poverty and violence.
Steve Steiner, one of the panelists and Gender Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace, said prior research has found that countries that have faced conflict will not succeed in empowering women unless there are organized efforts to engage men in support for women’s rights.
He said, “The tone of this work is not accusatory. It’s not saying they are perpetrators. But that good men can act as positive agents for change in their families, their communities and their countries.”
This panel was part of WISE’s #WEthroughU campaign, which urged influential male figures to champion for women’s rights. As part of the campaign, WISE collected 25 letters of commitment from high-level men in the education, government and the private sector, promising to work towards providing women with access to education and leadership positions.
However, ultimately the role of women cannot change unless the social environment and attitudes change first, said Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi, Chief Adviser to President Ghani on Infrastructure and Technology. It’s not as simple as putting women in more leadership positions.
“If you just hire them and you still have an environment that is very hostile for them, they are not going to stay on,” he said. “The issue is not how we can do the hiring process, but how you can change the environment so they can thrive and be successful.”
Hamdullah Mohib, Afghan Ambassador to the United States emphasized Afghanistan’s long history of powerful female leaders as educators, nurses, mothers and soldiers in active combat. He said, women hold within themselves the capacity to lead the fight for their own rights and it is the responsibility of men to move aside and make space for them to do so.
“We have strong roots of an equal society,” he said. “[Women] can do this [fight] on their own. It’s in the culture, it’s in the religion. What [men] need to do is make sure we do not insulate them and prevent their process.”
WISE is a non-profit organization devoted to empowering Afghan women trapped by gender inequality and poverty, by implementing poverty-reduction strategies and advocating for community-led efforts. To learn more about WISE, check them out on their website.