Women's Rights in Afghanistan
Wandering the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan in the 1960s, one passed lively, miniskirt-clad women alongside male friends as they strolled to their university classes. Heiresses to a new age of freedom, these women voted, laughed and lived freely, invigorated by the progressive spirit that pervaded every corner of the city. Beginning in the 1970s, however, conflict and poor governance gradually weakened women’s societal freedom. Then in 1996, the Taliban dismantled what semblance of equality remained. The United States’ post-9/11 occupation in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban and has helped to revive and work toward improving women’s rights in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. Yet in February 2020, the U.S. endorsed a deal with Afghanistan to withdraw from the country called The U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal. Although the agreement heralds a much-overdue peace between these long-warring countries, the departure of American troops may facilitate the return of Taliban rule and the subsequent eradication of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s Unchecked Oppression of Women

The first half of the 20th century saw great progress toward gender equality in Afghanistan. The era’s feminist vigor enfranchised women and integrated them with men. When the 1960s constitution cemented women’s rights in the fabric of the nation, true gender equality seemed imminent.

Hardship soon befell Afghanistan. The country’s status as a Soviet proxy state in the 1970s, and later, the jihadist activity by Mujahideen groups, eroded women’s rights. Additionally, these conflicts contributed to the political fragility that ultimately enabled the Taliban to take power in 1996. In pursuit of establishing an Islamic state, the Taliban implemented a doctored, repressive interpretation of sharia law.

This Islamist code drastically encroached on women’s rights in Afghanistan and effectively confined them to the domestic sphere. Depriving them of the right to vote, to receive an education or to seek employment, the Taliban subordinated women. Even minor defiance to these restrictions met with violent floggings, abuse and even stonings. Such atrocities extended beyond legal sanctions; women were frequently subject to sexual assault. The Taliban’s message was clear: womanhood itself was punishable.

US Occupation and Female Empowerment

After al-Qaeda-engineered the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan to depose the Taliban. This maneuver catalyzed nearly two decades of bloodshed. Though it has been hotly contested, America’s involvement has boosted women’s rights in Afghanistan. During the U.S. occupation, women have regained considerable economic opportunity and social freedoms.

Post-Taliban legislative actions have codified gender parity. The new constitution recognizes women’s legal equality with men. Rape, violence and physical abuse, previously an unrelenting threat to Afghan women, are now indictable offenses.

Women are also profiting from widening economic and educational opportunities and changes in societal attitudes. After decades of flatlining, the female labor force participation rate has increased by 7% since 2010, with women foraying into education, medicine, law enforcement and even public office at record levels. Women’s recent vocational advances have contributed to shifting ideologies across the country. In February 2020, NBC News reported that most Afghans have discarded misogynistic views in support of improving women’s rights in Afghanistan. Such a cultural transformation seems to herald women’s long-term empowerment and civic engagement.

Repercussions of the US-Taliban Peace Deal

Tragically, the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, signed Feb. 29, has the potential to reverse these last two decades of progress. With robust backing from both sides, the document provides for the departure of American troops from Afghanistan. This deal promises an end to the United States’ longest war. For its part, the Taliban has agreed to reject terrorism in pursuit of negotiating peace with the Afghan government.

The deal aspires to pacify a country too long battered by conflict, but it contains a grave flaw: it makes no provisions for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Despite its previous claims that harmony would “not be possible” without securing equality for women, the U.S. deferred the determination of gender parity to intra-Afghan discussions.

The Taliban has committed to granting women the rights that Islam guarantees. However, it claims to have upheld this pledge during its brutally repressive rule from 1996 to 2001. Given that the Taliban’s understanding of women’s rights has proven alarmingly narrow, its recent promise is hardly a consolation. Moreover, according to the U.S.’s most recent report, the territory that the Afghan government commanded in 2019 had dwindled to a record low. Without foreign aid or military backing, many fear the Taliban will easily overthrow the weakening Afghan government following the withdrawal of American troops.

Progress

In the past 20 years, Afghan women have shattered thousands of glass ceilings as they have built successful careers and enjoyed their hard-won freedoms. As the terms of the peace deal are actualized. However, the potential return of Taliban rule threatens to obliterate these advances. In order to avert a revival of misogyny and secure women’s rights in Afghanistan, Women for Afghan Women’s (WAW) Peacebuilding Program is preparing women to participate in future intra-Afghan talks. Along with stimulating meaningful political discourse among citizens, the program has coached 3,065 women in advocacy and negotiation. Politically and socially empowered, these outspoken women are joining the everyday conversations and monumental peace talks that will dictate their and their country’s future, and work toward improving women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Rosalind Coats
Photo: Pxfuel

Glamour BoutiqueThere are a number of advancements in legal gender rights across the world. However, social norms still play a large role in preventing women from attaining economic independence. Globally, women are almost three times more likely than men to work in the unpaid sector—namely domestic work and caring for children. When the women who are confined to this lifestyle are able to find paid work, it is often part-time and low-wage. This sets them at a significant financial disadvantage. They must depend on their husbands and families to provide for their basic needs.

The Fix

The Inclusive and Equitable Local Development (IELD) sector of the United Nations Capital Development Fund fights to right these wrongs. They invest in small businesses in developing countries that are largely run by women. Through their investments, these businesses expand, hire more people, increase their consumer market and earn more money. When women achieve financial independence, the reward is multiplied. Economically secure women are likely to invest in education, health and their community.

The Entrepreneur

One of these businesses that the IELD benefits is Glamour Boutique—a fashion business in Jessore, a small town in southwestern Bangladesh.

Glamour Boutique was officially founded in 2007 by Parveen Akhter. Akhter had been kidnapped and forced into child marriage when she was in the ninth grade. Her husband—her kidnapper and a drug addict—made it a habit of abusing her throughout their seventeen-year marriage. Encouragement from her oldest son, 16-years-old at the time, led her to file for divorce and set up the Glamour Boutique House and Training Centre. It was based in her home and capitalized on the embroidery and tailoring skills Akhter had taught herself over the years. Once business picked up, she moved into a rented space.

This is when the IELD stepped in. Akhter had little money, a small market and limited machines. They loaned her nearly 30,000 USD to expand. Since then, Glamour Boutique has employed over 50 women and consistently trains around 20 in tailoring and embroidery.

More than anything, the company is female-friendly. It helps to lift women out of poverty and give them a purpose and community. Additionally, she is sensitive to her employees having outside commitments. She offers short four-hour shifts for women who are enrolled in school, have children or have other situations warranting a flexible schedule.

Mussamad Nafiza, an employee at Glamour Boutique, testifies to the beauty of working there. She describes her own and others’ financial gain and independence as well as her dreams of opening a business similar to Akhter’s. Dipa Monjundar, a friend of Akhter’s and fellow small business owner, commends Akhter’s work and celebrates the economic empowerment of women across Bangladesh.

Next Steps

Although important, investing in women’s businesses is not the only way to help women achieve economic prosperity. Commitments from men and the government are essential. They need to respect, uphold and uplift women’s rights to sustainably change the way communities approach gender disparity.

Jessore’s mayor participated in several gender equality training sessions before starting any major projects. If other community leaders encourage participation in similar training courses, economic gender parity may no longer be a far-fetched dream.

Rebecca Blanke
Photo: Flickr

Programs Aiding Women in Vietnam

Too many Vietnamese women find themselves locked into a life of abuse and poverty, with no skills or access to education to become gainfully employed. One example lies in the story of Sung Thi Sy. Sy resides in the Sa Phin village in the Dong Van District of Vietnam. According to the Asia News Network, her family lived in severe poverty for much of her life and she constantly lived in fear of her husband who would regularly abuse her. She considered running away, but she was worried about providing for her two young children. However, thanks to the support of a locally-funded program, Sy and her children are now thriving. There are many other programs aiding women in Vietnam including the following.

3 Programs Aiding Women in Vietnam

  1. Education and Training: One of the most well-known organizations that work to solve this problem is the Vietnamese Women’s Union (VWU). Founded in 1930, the VWU originally found roles for women during the liberation of Vietnam from French colonialism. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the VWU focused on helping women rebuild their lives by pulling them out of poverty and introducing them to the workforce. Today, the VWU has more than 19 million members that constantly work towards gender equality for Vietnamese women. The VWU offers loans to help poor Vietnamese women afford a higher education and training programs to provide the skills needed to find higher-paying careers.
  2. Agriculture: Women in the Dong Van district of Vietnam face a high risk of human trafficking and domestic violence and an unpredictable climate with barren land which makes farming a challenge. One of the programs aiding women in Vietnam with these struggles is the Lanh Trang (White Flax) Agricultural and Forestry Services Cooperative. Launched in 2017, the program works to provide vocational skills for disadvantaged women and invests in the necessary equipment to grow and harvest flax for the women in the Dong Van area. Since its inception, the Lanh Trang Cooperative has created stable jobs for 95 women, including Sung Thi Sy, all of whom live on a budget of around $170 to $260 per month.
  3. Entrepreneurship: The United Nations Development Programme launched an initiative dubbed the Economic Empowerment of Ethnic Minority Women via Application of 14.0 to aid women in Vietnam through entrepreneurship. This initiative creates an online platform in which Vietnamese women can learn modern financial solutions, take online courses on creating a business, obtain new technology for production and many more services.

Today, Sung Thi Sy has a job in the production of flaxseed products and brings home a consistent paycheck to feed her children and preserve the roof above their heads. Women like Sy are living proof that with enough funding, programs like these can promote tangible improvements in the fight against poverty and inequality in Vietnam.

– Charles Nettles
Photo: Flickr

Poverty and Patriarchy
While poverty and patriarchy may seem like separate issues, the two connect deeply. As long as poverty exists, women’s rights and livelihoods will suffer. Likewise, women’s oppression leads to their inability to contribute to the economy and prevents a family’s escape from cycles of poverty. Here are some examples from around the world of poverty and patriarchy reinforcing each other, and some ways humanitarian aid can improve these situations.

Microcredit in Bangladesh Has Left Millions of Women At High Risk For Domestic Violence

From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, people thought that micro-loans would be the future of international development. In Bangladesh, most of these loans went to women on the belief that women could handle money more responsibly than their male counterparts. They received a small amount of money to invest in materials to start a business and earn an independent livelihood in order to bring their families financial stability. Unfortunately, when these women were unsuccessful at lifting their families out of poverty and their families plunged into greater debt as a result of the loans, they often suffered spousal abuse. For other women, as soon as they received the money, the men and their families took it and used it, leaving them to pay off the loans by themselves. As a whole, micro-credit has not had the intended impact on the people of Bangladesh that the international community once hoped for, and rates of violence against women have climbed, increasing the correlation between poverty and patriarchy

Solution: Investing in women’s education will provide them with the knowledge they need to become financially independent and ensure greater legal protection for victims of domestic violence could greatly combat this issue.

Poverty As a Weapon Against Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sixty-one percent of women living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo live in poverty, compared to only fifty-one percent of men. This is because people have systematically excluded women from peace-building efforts in the country. Because there are no women’s voices at the decision-making table, countries set policies that prioritize men, often at women’s expense. Disturbingly, women’s rights activists in the country are often a target for violence. Many think that those who advocate for women-centered poverty-relief efforts are distracting from larger issues within the country.

Solution: Studies that researchers conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo demonstrate that in areas with high levels of poverty, there are high levels of violence against women. Providing food security, as well as funding institutions and organizations to empower women, are important steps in relieving both poverty and oppression in the DRC.

Time Poverty Makes it Nearly Impossible for Indian Women to Contribute to the Economy

In India, the average man works seven hours per day. Although women usually work for nine hours a day, the vast majority of their labor is unpaid housework and childminding. This means that they have little time to earn any outside wages, and therefore, remain financially dependent on the men in their families.  The power dynamic that this situation creates is extremely dangerous. Women lose any agency they may have because they depend on their fathers, husbands or brothers for everything. This means that they have no power to go against their male relative’s wills. It also hurts the Indian economy, as women have little ability to contribute to it.

Solution: In rural India, women spend upwards of four hours each day gathering fuel and cleaning utensils to cook with. Providing them with solar or electric cookers could save them three hours of unpaid labor, giving them more time to do what they want to do or contribute to the economy as an untapped workforce.

These examples display just how poverty and patriarchy intertwine and push women and their families into poverty. If women could gain an education, receive food security or use alternative cooking equipment to limit labor, they might be able to improve their situation and lift themselves out of poverty.

Gillian Buckley
Photo: Wikimedia