Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman:
- More women die in pregnancy and childbirth than almost anywhere else in the world. 1 in 50 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth—one every 2 hours.
- 9 out 10 women are illiterate.
- Women have more than 5 children on average, yet 1 out 10 children die before their fifth birthday.
- Life expectancy is 44, one of the lowest in the world.
The only good news is that that these statistics have substantially improved in the last few years. (see below)
What causes such difficulties for Afghan women?
- Child marriage: More than 50% of Afghan girls are married or engaged by 10. Almost 60% of girls are married by 16. Women activists say up to 80 percent of marriages in poor rural areas are either forced or arranged. Most girls marry far older men — some in their 60s — whom they meet for the first time at their wedding. A lack of security from three decades of war, and the risk of kidnapping and rape, has also prompted many families to force their young daughters into marriage. Some girls are bartered into marriage to repay debt or resolve a dispute. And widespread poverty still compels many parents to get their daughters married to avoid the cost of caring for them. Older, wealthier husbands will pay a larger bride-price for a girl.
- The implications of child marriage cannot be underestimated. Married girls do not continue their education and remain illiterate. They have babies while still young teenagers, increasing health problems and risking death for themselves and their children (the risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth for girls under 14 is five times higher than for adult women). In Kabul, it is not uncommon for young girls to be admitted to hospitals shortly after marriage in a state of shock from serious physical injuries—tearing and extensive bleeding—and psychological trauma. Young wives also have low status in the family and are more likely to be abused by their husbands and/or in-laws.
- Lack of education: Only 40% of Afghan girls attend elementary school, and only one in 20 girls attend school beyond the sixth grade. There are approximately three times more boys attending school than girls. Many Afghan families will only permit their daughters to attend all-girls schools close to home and few such schools exist. Other families believe it is unnecessary for girls to be educated. Schools for girls have been burned down, hundreds of teachers educating girls have been threatened or killed, and girls and have been physically harmed while attending or walking to or from school.
- Few options for widows. Afghanistan has 1.5 million widows, one of the highest proportions in the world. Many men were killed in the armed conflicts, and older husbands are likely to die sooner than their child brides. The average age of an Afghan widow is 35, and 94% of them are illiterate. Most of them have more than four children to support. While many widows with children will continue to be cared for by their husband’s family (marriage to surviving brothers is common), it is not always possible. Widows without male protection have few options and many are forced to beg or engage in prostitution.
What other difficulties do girls and women face?
- Hidden and isolated. Islamic extremists insist women and girls stay at home, and can only leave if they are fully covered and accompanied by a male relative. In the cities most women wear a burqa that completely covers them. The fact that girls live with their husband’s extended family often results in them being treated like servants or slaves, compounding their isolation.
- Few economic opportunities. A culture prohibiting women to appear in public combined with a widespread lack of education mean women enjoy few economic opportunities. In general, women are confined to housework. Education is the best strategy to liberate women from male domination.
- Women’s legal standing is limited. According to Sharia law, a female’s testimony is worth ½ that of a man. In custody cases, children will usually be awarded to the father or grandfather. So divorce—even in extreme abuse cases—is less likely to be sought, because a woman must be prepared to lose her children.
These discriminatory practices against women are pervasive, occurring across ethnic groups in both rural and urban areas. Many Afghans, including some religious leaders, reinforce harmful customs by invoking their interpretation of Islam. In most cases, however, these practices are inconsistent with Sharia law as well as Afghan and international law.
Hasn’t life improved since the Taliban were deposed?
- During the rule of the Taliban (1996 – 2001), women were treated worse than during any other leadership in the history of Afghanistan. They were forbidden to work, to leave the house without a male escort, to seek medical help from a male doctor. Under the Taliban regime, women were also forced to cover themselves completely from head to toe, even covering their eyes. Women who were doctors and teachers suddenly were forced to be beggars and even prostitutes in order to feed their families. Women accused of prostitution were publicly stoned to death in the soccer stadium in Kabul.
- Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, women have gained political rights. The recently adopted Afghan constitution states that “the citizens of Afghanistan –whether man or woman—have equal rights and duties before the law.” Women even have been appointed to prominent positions in the government.
- While the Afghan government and international community are working for women’s rights, since most women are illiterate, they are not engaged in the process. Thus the government has reduced women’s rights when it feels it is politically expedient: In February 2009 President Karzai signed a law which affects several key rights of Afghan Shi’a women:
* Denies women the right to leave their homes except for “legitimate” purposes;
* Forbids women from working or receiving education without their husbands’ express permission;
* Explicitly permits marital rape;
* Diminishes the right of mothers to be their children’s guardians in the event of a divorce;
* And makes it impossible for wives to inherit houses and land from their husbands – even though husbands may inherit immoveable property from their wives.
While this law only applies to Shi’a (less than 20% of women), the fact that such a draconian law was passed at all indicates how easily women’s rights can be bargained away if women are still illiterate and isolated.
- Girl’s education has improved. Since 2002, the number of girls attending school increased by over 30 percent; however, an estimated 1.5 million school-age girls are still not enrolled in classes. UNICEF reported that 34 percent of children enrolled in school are girls, although this figure hides large disparities from province to province, with enrollment as low as 15 percent in some areas.
- Child marriage is more difficult. The Afghan government recently changed the legal age for marriage for girls from 16 to 17. Men who want to marry girls under 17 are not entitled to obtain a marriage certificate, although many men simply do not bother with officially registering their marriages. However, it seems that fewer girls are getting married.
- Women can be employed, but only if their male relatives permit it. But with high unemployment rates, some feel employing women takes jobs from men.
- While more girls and women are getting an education and are free to move about, families may not be willing to take the risk. Extremists still believe that if girls are visible outside the home, they lose respect and are at risk of dishonoring the family. Engaged or married girls, even if they are young, are often kept behind closed doors.
- Self-immolation (setting oneself on fire) has decreased from 350 cases per year in Herat province to 70 cases per year after a government education campaign. (Young abused wives often feel they have no way out but self-immolation.)
- Fewer women die during pregnancy or childbirth. The rate has gone done from 9% to 2% in the past few years. In addition to improvements in infrastructure, education and healthcare, more women are receiving skilled care before and during childbirth.
- Fewer children die before age 5. Child mortality has been decreased by half! Though the rate is still high, improvements in access to clean water, electricity and sanitation, as well as better educated mothers, have helped the save the lives of thousands of Afghan women.
Though these gains for girls and women may seem small from an American perspective, they are real. All change—if it is to be permanent–cannot be imposed by Western outsiders on this tribal, Islamic, post-conflict society. It has to emerge through education within the context of the culture. We help girls get the education they so desperately want, as well as help educate the boys. Educated men are much more likely to support more choices for women. Educated husbands appreciate and are less threatened by their educated partners. See Our work: Schools