Food discrimination against women in Afghanistan
by Weeda Mehran
Afghanistan has been described as the world’s most dangerous country for women. Many civil society organisations working on women’s rights claim that violence against women (VAW) is on the rise in the country. VAW takes many forms, and has complex and deep roots in the patriarchal culture of the Afghan society. One form of VAW is denying them access to food. This discrimination can be derived from patriarchal norms and the legal system.
Poverty is one of the major issues Afghanistan is struggling with. More than one third of the Afghan population lives below the national poverty line.[i] This has direct effects on the diets of most Afghan households, and often some family members suffer from nutrition deficiency.
In particular, the most vulnerable groups, such as women and children, are more likely to be exposed to malnutrition. Poverty is gendered and women are more likely than men to be poor. Malnutrition is prevalent among Afghan women. Approximately 21 per cent of Afghan women have a low body mass index (BMI), 48 per cent suffer from an iron deficiency, and a staggering 75 per cent suffer from an iodine deficiency.[ii]
In effect, women’s malnutrition has serious implications for the health of their children. In Afghanistan, 55 per cent of children under the age of 5 do not get sufficient nutrition to develop physically and mentally, leading to an extraordinary high child mortality rate of 45per cent.[iii] The primary reason for all this is gender inequality, which is institutionalized in Afghanistan.
Access to food is a mean of social power
Gender inequality can be both a cause and a result of food insecurity. Just as women’s access to education and health care has been limited by patriarchal norms and structures, so has women’s access to nutrition and food been limited. Inequalities in access to food and women’s limited decision-making power at the household level can influence women’s role in society.
Food and nutrition can be used as a basic form of controlling women’s autonomy. For example, it limits women’s appearance outside of the household. If a husband does not agree to his wife working outside the house, a woman’s decision to go against this can simply mean starvation for her or her children as a form of punishment, since the husband is usually in charge of family expenditures and food purchasing.
Gender segregation and division of labor at the household level can infringe upon women’s access to food. In a patriarchal society such as Afghanistan, men’s primary role is as a breadwinner, while women’s role is traditionally limited to household labor. As such, men are more likely to be in charge of major and even every-day household finances.
It is common practice in some parts of the country, especially in the periphery and in rural areas, for women to ask for money from the head of the household for the daily purchase of food, or request men to buy various food items (particularly among families where women are not allowed to go shopping). While male members of the household are responsible for purchasing food, women are in charge of cooking.
Traditionally many families, even in urban areas, serve meals in separate rooms for women and men. This is particularly common in larger households where three generations live under the same roof. The rational for this is to make women feel more comfortable while eating and allow children to freely play around without upsetting the male members of the household, who can eat in peace and quiet.
Furthermore, male members of the household are more likely to get better food, or a bigger portion of it. This discrimination is especially a problem among households with limited nutritional resources. It is not only perpetrated by men, but also by women, to the extent that mothers feed their sons better than their daughters when resources are limited.
Men often engage in labor intensive jobs such as farming, construction, and armed forces. Hence, food discrimination at the household level is justified based on needs, wherein men get the priority.
Gender inequalities are legally manifested
Women’s predicament in the family is to a great extent institutionalized through the laws of the country. The Civil Code of 1977, which is still in effect, contains many discriminatory articles that clearly put women at a disadvantage. By subjugating women to men’s authority and requiring them to submit to their will, women are, in effect, treated as legal minors.[iv]
These legal inequalities are manifested even more in Sharia law. Following the sharia rule of nafaqa, a man is obliged to support his wife with food, clothing and shelter as soon as the marriage is consummated. This is derived from the Quran (4:34), which states that “Men are protectors and maintainers of women because God give one more than the other, and because they support them from their means.”
These strict gender responsibilities enshrined in Sharia law and the legal code of the country have led to systematic discrimination against women. A woman is subjugated to a man’s authority for the provision of her food, and a man can easily justify limiting a woman’s educational and workforce participation.
These laws have largely been an interpretation of women’s “inferiority” to men, as women are considered “weak” and unable to provide for themselves. Consequently, a husband or a male figure in the family is responsible for providing them with basic material needs in life. In turn, women and men are socialized to internalize such gender practices.
In fact, men can suffer from such gendered roles as well. For example, research conducted by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) found that many Afghan men feel that they are unable to live up to the expectations that society sets upon them.
More legal and social reforms are necessary
Since 2001, significant efforts have been made to address legal discrimination against women. Afghanistan’s Constitution makes provisions that allow for adopting laws that ensure equality. In fact, Article 7 of the Afghan Constitution states “The state shall observe the United Nations (UN) Charter, inter-state agreements, as well as international treaties to which Afghanistan has joined, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2003 was a major step in this direction. However, bringing family laws on par with the Constitution is a challenging matter, particularly when family laws are based on Sharia law.
In this regard, Article 3 of the Constitution clearly makes the provision that “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.” As a consequence, many religious groups in the country can easily reject a Civil Code that is based on gender equality principles and perceived to violate Sharia law.
To address systematic discrimination against women, the legal code of the country needs to be revised. Evidently, the implementation of progressive reform policies to ensure women’s rights will be a very challenging task that needs to be addressed through a comprehensive strategic plan. For example, in 2013, hundreds of women affiliated with radical Islamic groups in Kabul carried out a demonstration against the Law on Elimination of VAW.
They viewed the law as a “plot by the West to strip Muslim women of their Islamic dignity.”[vii] Hence, progressive reforms in family law will not be possible without the lobbying of members of parliament and religious leaders and direct engagement of civil society organizations at the local level.
Yet, challenging discriminatory legal codes alone will not be sufficient, due to the lack of law enforcement. To address women’s access to food and the broader underlying factors associated with food discrimination, namely gender inequality, longer-term policies need to be put in place.
These policies need to allow for women’s education and labor force participation. Educational programs should address discriminatory practices at the family level. Gender studies should be incorporated into the school curriculum so that young boys and girls get formal training and exposure to the issue from an early age. These are first important steps so that VAW in any form including food discrimination can be eradicated in Afghanistan.
This article is part of our publication Perspectives Asia: Politics of Food.