Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations

In 2001 almost no Afghan girls went to school. Today 3 million of them do, and they account for nearly 40 percent of all primary school students. Almost 120,000 females have graduated from high school, 15,000 are enrolled in universities, and 500 are on university faculties.

Of course, ten years of progress, no matter how dramatic, cannot erase long decades of limited education. “The reality is that Afghanistan has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world,” says CSO’s Jessie Evans, who was based in Kabul from September 2011 to October 2012. She was an instrumental leader on the team that focused on the gender-related challenges facing the country. “But the improvement has been dramatic.”

The increase in women’s freedom and opportunities began when the Taliban were driven from power in 2001. Afghan women have benefitted from greater access to health care, expanded work opportunities, and rights guaranteed by the constitution enacted in 2004. Infant mortality plunged by 50 percent during the 1990s and into the mid-2000s, from 111 infant deaths per 1,000 live births to 55, according to the UN.

Government employment figures are eye-opening, as well. In 2001 there were no female civil servants. Today, they make up 19 percent of the government workforce, on the way to a goal of 30 percent. By law, a quarter of the seats in provincial councils and 27 percent of the spots in Parliament are reserved for women. Three women are serving as cabinet ministers, and at least 100 are sitting as judges.

To maintain this momentum, the government enacted a ten-year National Action Plan for Women in 2008 and a Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (LEVAW) in 2009. “These are historic steps,” says Evans, “but many of the rights enshrined in the constitution and the criminal code are not being fully enforced or properly implemented. Meanwhile, significant cultural hurdles remain.” A detailed report issued by the UN in December 2012 said that the use of LEVAW had increased significantly and that prosecutions had doubled. However, prosecutors took barely a third of the complaints to trial.

Evans was the lead strategic planner on the Interagency Gender Working Group and directed the writing and clearance of the Embassy’s gender strategy. “We had outstanding teamwork, with valuable roles played by the State Department, USAID, other federal agencies, and U.S. and international military representatives,” she points out. The strategy strongly supports the priorities of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. “Implementing this strategy will help ensure that the gains that women in Afghanistan have achieved will not be undone, even as we move beyond 2014 and the scheduled departure of NATO forces,” Evans says.

Although girls’ right to education is protected under Article 44 of the constitution, those opportunities still remain limited. The many obstacles include early marriage, restricted movement, long distances to schools, a shortage of female teachers, limited facilities, and the lower value attached to educating women—with some Afghans totally opposed.

Integrating women into the police (known as the Afghan National Police or ANP), has been challenging, too. Dangerous environments, culture and customs that forbid women to join, and perceived or real mistreatment of women by male counterparts and superiors, have prevented many women from becoming part of the ANP. Despite an intensive effort to bring women onto the force, they account for less than 1.1 percent of the ANP. “Women face significant barriers to full participation in security forces,” observes Evans, who reported back to Washington on the integration campaign. “Although stronger documentation, implementation and enforcement of policies, procedures and guidance to better integrate women will help, it will take time to change the cultural mores that underlie many of the impediments. But it’s important to keep in mind that some progress is being made in a very difficult environment.”

U.S. Embassy officials regularly engage with the High Peace Council (HPC) and Provincial Peace Councils (PPC), to ensure that rights of women achieved over the past decade are not reversed. With just nine women HPC members, Afghan women and Afghan civil society organizations are deeply concerned that the peace process and negotiations to bring insurgent elements such as the Taliban into government will trade away women’s rights in favor of security.

The U.S. Embassy remains committed to inclusiveness and mainstreaming gender issues into all policies and programs so that decreases in U.S. funding and presence in Afghanistan do not disproportionately affect women as transition proceeds. CSO, which has sent over 115 staff members to the country during the course of the war, currently has five civilian-military planners assigned to Afghanistan to assist with the transition as civilians and military withdraw. CSO staff is seeking ways to mitigate the transition’s impact on Afghan women and girls and to guide decision makers responsible for policy and resources. As Evans puts it, although CSO will not have staff in Afghanistan forever, the U.S. government has made a long term commitment to Afghan women and “we want to do everything possible to make the progress sustainable and ultimately irreversible.”