Medical Students, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1950s
From the 1930s to the 1970s, Afghanistan enjoyed the essence of a national government and Kabul was known as the “Paris of Central Asia.” But for four decades, the people of Afghanistan have been subjected to a succession of brutal wars, from the Soviet occupation (1979–1989) to a period of tribal civil wars (1990–1996), the oppressive rule of the Taliban (1996-2001), and the ensuing attempt to build a democracy. These conflicts have left Afghanistan’s infrastructure and economy devastated. In addition to being one of the poorest countries in the world, today Afghanistan has the globe’s highest infant mortality rate.
Women and girls have often been the worst victims of conflict. Under the Taliban, women were forced to wear an all-encompassing burqa in public and barred from working outside the home. They were also banned from attending schools, riding bicycles, wearing brightly colored clothes, and laughing loudly.
Prior to the Soviet occupation and Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was a relatively liberal country with a progressive outlook on women’s rights. Afghan women made up 50% of government workers, 70% of schoolteachers, and 40% of doctors in Kabul. However, the effects of war and the Taliban regime quickly effaced the rights of women in public life and relegated them to solely the domestic realm.
Given the size of its population (32.5 million), Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of widows in the world. As many as 2 million women have been widowed by Afghanistan’s wars and left with few options for supporting themselves and their families. Women who have lost their husbands see their already limited personal freedoms further diminished, as widows are considered bad omens in Afghan culture. Options for remarriage are limited: sometimes a widow can marry a relative of her late husband, but if she chooses to remarry outside the family, she can lose custody of her children.
Since the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has experienced dramatic change at the governmental level. A new constitution was approved in 2004 and the country’s first presidential elections were held later that year. The constitution made women and men equal citizens under the law and mandates that women comprise at least 25% of the new parliament. (Today women hold 27% of these seats.) Billions of dollars in foreign aid have poured into the country, both through government-sponsored assistance programs and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).
Despite incremental improvements, for most women, little has meaningfully changed since the days of the Taliban. It remains taboo for an Afghan woman to be seen in public without a burqa, although it is not required by law. Women and girls are still largely uneducated and confined to their homes, with few prospects for gainful employment. Girls are often the most marginalized and vulnerable.
Afghan girls and women face many forms of violence: threats, torture, rape, child and forced marriages (Baadal—the exchange of daughters or sisters as brides, and Baad—arranged marriages to settle disputes, among them). Afghan women and girls are often forced into marriages with older men, resulting in alarming suicide rates. In 2007, 500 women set themselves on fire to escape forced marriages.
Violence against women and girls arises due to entrenched gender inequalities, including women’s lack of access to economic, political, and social resources. The gender gap in Afghanistan is deeply rooted in androcentric and fundamentalist religious values—and Islamic fundamentalism continues to influence the Afghan government’s policies on women’s rights. Analysis indicates that the nation’s women are among the worst off in the world, both in comparison to Afghan men and to women in other countries.
Gender differences are also visible in the labor market. Unpaid family work and agriculture account for at least two thirds of female employment. Women’s mean and median monthly incomes are significantly lower than men’s in equivalent occupations.
The Afghan government failed to fully implement the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law—landmark legislation that came into force through a presidential decree to protect girls and women’s rights. The law criminalized 22 acts of violence against women and other harmful practices. A contingent of parliamentarians opposed to the law continue their efforts to remove provisions regulating the minimum age of marriage, prescribing punishments for domestic assault, and providing for women’s shelters. Much work lies ahead.
Perhaps surprisingly, education in Afghanistan is one of the most significant success stories of the post-Taliban era. Today, education is Afghanistan’s third largest budgetary expenditure after security and infrastructure—and the impact of this priority is clear. In 2001, fewer than 900,000 Afghan children attended school—and all of them were boys. By 2016 that number increased to 9 million, with girls comprising 40%. While this gender disparity in literacy rates among those over the age of 15 is still prominent (24.2% for females compared to 52% for males), comparing data between 2013 and 2017 demonstrates that the female literacy rate nearly doubled—which is an extraordinary accomplishment.
The Afghan Central Statistics Organization reports that demand for higher education continues to grow. Public university enrollment increased from 7,900 in 2001 to 300,00 in 2016. Of these students, 35% are women. In 2015, Kabul University launched the first master’s degree course in gender and women’s studies in Afghanistan.
Investing in girls’ education is critical to addressing girls’ needs and concerns as well as human rights. It has been shown that girls who go to school and stay in school are more likely to and jobs as adults, get married older, have fewer children, and are able to earn more for their families and communities. Beyond investing in protective security measures, the only way to ensure women’s human rights in Afghanistan and to truly empower women in the long run is through offering primary, secondary, and higher education that will foster literacy, free-thinking, and knowledge of international human rights standards.
US figures are provided for comparative context.
|Afghanistan Rate||Afghanistan International Ranking||US Rate||US International Ranking|
|Infant Mortality Rate||112.8/1,000||1 of 225||5.8/1,000||269 of 225|
|Maternal Mortality Rate||460/100,000||22 of 184||21/100,000||136 of 184|
|Fertility Rate||5.22 births per woman||10 of 224||1.9 births per woman||142 of 224|
|Female Life Expectancy at Birth||62 years||160 of 185||81.6 years||34 of 185|
|Male Life Expectancy at Birth||59.5 years||159 of 185||76.9 years||36 of 185|
|Expected Years of School/Females||8.3||165 of 185||17.3||15 of 185|
|Expected Years of School/Males||13.1||90 of 185||15.8||27 of 185|
|Gender Inequality Index||0.67||151 of 161||0.2||43 of 161|
“My focus is to make life better for women and girls because they are suffering the most. By nature, Afghanistan’s women are very strong. If they put their mind to something, they can do anything. They can go through hell and come out and survive. They’ve lived through the Taliban—and if they can get through that, they have a chance.”—Razia Jan
Investing in girls’ education is critical to addressing girls’ needs and concerns as well as human rights. It has been shown that girls who go to school and stay in school are more likely to find jobs as adults, get married older, have fewer children, and are able to earn more for their families and communities. Beyond protective security measures, the only way to ensure women's human rights in Afghanistan and to truly empower women in the long run is through offering primary, secondary, and higher education that will foster literacy, free-thinking, and knowledge of international human rights standards.
For statistics pertaining to Afghan women, please see our PDF fact sheet Women in Afghanistan, which you may print and distribute.
Sources: Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington DC; CNN; Associated Press; Beyond Belief Screening and Action Guide; CIA World Factbook; Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; World Bank; Index Mundi, USAID.