Afghanistan: Women and reconstruction

Originally published


The establishment of an Interim Administration for Afghanistan during the Bonn talks in December 2001 was heralded as offering Afghan women a chance to claim their place in public life and participate in the country's development after systemic exclusion under the Taliban. Creation of a Ministry of Women's Affairs, the commitment of substantial donor assistance to programs targeting women, and, most critically, the return of women to universities, schools, and government offices all portended a new day.

Lost in the initial euphoria, however, was attention to the critical factors that had made past reform on women's rights unsustainable and to the task of identifying strategies for mainstreaming gender issues in the development process as a whole. Without a coherent policy regarding gender and development on the part of both the international community and the Karzai government, donor assistance is being channelled to projects likely to prove at most symbolic.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs is the logical vehicle for developing strategies to embed gender in the planning activities of the line ministries. It has, however, been hobbled by lack of professional capacity and a hierarchical structure that impedes collaboration between its departments. This stems in part from its absorption of a communist-era women's association, whose vocational training mission is ill suited to current challenges. In the words of a gender specialist in Kabul, the ministry is "functioning as a relatively large NGO". The steps needed to make it more effective include re-staffing to develop research, program development, and budgeting capabilities; creation of links between its departments; and establishment of health, education, and gender advocacy and training departments.

The mechanisms established to improve coordination between ministries and between the government and donors have significant structural defects. Although the government has requested all ministries to name gender focal points, most have appointed lower-level officials who have little authority to shape planning and policies.

To improve budgetary policy formation through early public and international input, the administration has also developed an internal structure of policy coordination bodies, called "consultative groups", as well as a Gender Advisory Group that includes donor participation. Twelve budgetary program areas have been divided between seventeen consultative groups, or working groups of ministries, donors, and NGOs headed by a lead ministry. To date, these have failed to incorporate gender effectively into the national budget or the policy calculations of the line ministries.

Donor assistance, both to government and civil society, has been directed toward quick-impact, high visibility projects. Relatively little research has been done into their sustainability and their accessibility to women, particularly in rural areas. The Ministry of Women, assisted by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and funded by a U.S.$2.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), plans to establish community development centres in fourteen provincial capitals, with a goal of expanding them to cover all 32 provinces.

Gender and development specialists in Kabul are sharply divided on the utility of these centres. Some argue that the international community should have first directed resources to studying local modes of organising and conducting broader consultations with women in the provinces. Other donor-supported activities, including sewing centres and women's shelters, have similarly been established without detailed research.

The barring of women by the Taliban from most employment and secondary school education paradoxically galvanised Afghan women activists. The underground schools and literacy programs they established have given rise to many of the NGOs now active in Kabul. Many, however, are dependent on donor support, channelled through large international NGOs. The small grants that they receive restrict their capacity for growth and limit their activities to vocational training, literacy programs, and other activities that have marginal impact on women's economic empowerment.

Woman activists, particularly those who attempt to educate and mobilise women around issues related to political participation, also operate in a difficult environment. Some interviewed by ICG recounted threats they have received. A renewed and expanded international commitment to security is urgently needed if the limited gains women have made in Kabul are to be institutionalised and emulated in other Afghan cities.

Ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on 5 March 2003, as Afghanistan is in the midst of ambitious constitution-drafting and judicial and legislative reform, creates an historic opportunity and obligation to incorporate the treaty protections into national laws and institutions. The constitutional process is also an opportunity to incorporate women into political processes through broad-based consultations.

If gender equality is to obtain significant public support, arguments and idioms are required that draw upon Islamic notions of equity and social justice. Progressive legal and constitutional developments in other Islamic countries, such as Iran's family courts, should be examined as possible models for Afghanistan.


To Afghanistan's Transitional Administration:

1. Request the Ministry of Women's Affairs to study options for, and adopt, an administrative structure that streamlines its functioning and establishes crosscutting links within its departments.

2. Ensure that all ministries name as gender focal points officials with at least the rank of deputy minister or department head and link those gender focal points to the Gender Advisory Group, so that policy recommendations can be disseminated within the government.

3. Appoint permanent managerial and technical support staff to the Gender Advisory Group and other bodies that are meant to mainstream gender policy in line ministries.

4. Appoint the members of the civil service commission, give it a professional secretariat and use employment selection criteria it develops as a basis for appointment to government posts and review of existing appointments, including within the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

5. Develop methods of ensuring that gender policy concerns are incorporated within budgetary allocations of line ministries.

6. Establish family courts in each provincial centre, with jurisdiction over all matters related to divorce, compulsory marriage, child custody and inheritance, and ensure that judges presiding over the courts are fully conversant with the civil code and applicable international treaties to which Afghanistan is a party.

7. Incorporate women with experience in public life and advocacy into the Constitutional Commission to ensure visible and meaningful gender balance.

8. Ensure that input from the public consultation process, particularly with women, is reflected in the final draft of the constitution presented to the Constitutional Loya Jirga.

9. Ensure that the selection process facilitates women's participation in the Constitutional Loya Jirga.

To the Judicial Reform Commission:

10. Incorporate the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) into the revised civil and criminal codes, in particular with respect to family law.

11. Identify appropriate progressive Islamic statutory systems, including those of Tunisia and Malaysia, that could be sources for revision of the civil and penal codes consistent with Afghan norms.

To the international community:

12. Include capacity building in programming and budgeting in the aid given to the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

13. Support creation of micro-credit loan programs and training in loan management for women.

14. Ensure that gender and development assistance is based on field research and consultations with Afghan women, including market research into income-earning opportunities, women's mobility in the target areas, and accessibility of services.

15. Help the Ministry of Education develop curricula that explain women's rights under the civil code and CEDAW in terms accessible to both male and female students.

16. Support financially a consultation process on the constitution that gives women a genuine voice and identify and support initiatives to develop a constituency for women's rights within and outside the government in the run-up to the Constitutional Loya Jirga.

To the United Nations:

17. Refocus UNIFEM's efforts on effective needs assessments, appropriate income generation projects with the necessary auxiliary training, and projects that build women's capacity to participate in the political process.

To the states participating in ISAF:

18. Extend ISAF or an equivalent mission to additional areas of the country, beyond Kabul, especially major urban centres, so that Afghan women activists can operate there effectively.

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