Small Wars Journal

Gender and Transition in Afghanistan

Fri, 04/12/2013 - 10:04am

The Gender Focus

July 2012 on a hillside in Afghanistan’s Parwan province - the sentence of death for adultery is read out. A bearded man aims a rifle and fires nine bullets – claiming the life of a still, squatting figure in a blue burqa. This, accompanied by cheers of men, ringing the hill side, brings home a start reality of the defenselessness and the oppression of women in Afghanistan. We learn later that Najiba was the woman in the blue burqa.  Najiba’s story or versions of it are not new in Afghanistan.

As NATO-ISAF prepares to draw down and hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (military and police), the issue of the reach of the state needs to be put into a wider focus by including women and gender issues as part of the narrative.  As Representative Susan Davis (D) of California put it - providing a secure environment for Afghan women will highlight the success of Afghanistan’s Security.[1]

Despite foreign intervention and almost three decades of conflict, Afghanistan remains a conservative society. Social norms and religious observances are strictly maintained. The harsh terrain and difficulty in accessing town centers and market places, ensures that a majority of the population that lives in villages and communities have rarely stepped outside their immediate surroundings. Strict codes of behavior, strictly enforced by social pressure and lack of knowledge of the outside world, shut out current information and the momentum for change. The resilience of the Afghan population has been strengthened by strong traditional communities, social and family structures that have survived conflict and anarchy, but has also kept its women caught in the vice-like grip of a restrained existence, justified by tradition and social norms.[2]

Despite almost two decades of centralization efforts, the reach of the central government is tenuous in many parts of the country. Traditional institutions for rural Afghans still provide the kinds of services and support that they have relied on for centuries.  Although, Afghanistan is projected to be one of the the fastest growing wireless markets in this decade with access to mobile platforms and telephony increasing to almost 60% [3] – intensive education, political and social will and awareness generation is required for age old cultural traditions to allow for women’s to appropriately leverage the benefits of communication technology.  

More than a decade after the ousting of the Taliban -progress for women is still a mixed bag of improvements coupled with severe constraints in almost every sphere.  It is important to acknowledge that there have been significant committed efforts by the International Community and the Afghan Government, to improve the lot of women in the post-Taliban decade. Life expectancy, due to expanded access to basic healthcare has risen from 40 to 65 years for both males and females. Over 25% of seats in Parliament are held by women (a higher percentage than in most developing countries); female literacy has increased to nearly 15% nationwide: 30% among girls aged 15-24, and almost 40% among young urban women; over 4 million girls are attending schools, making up almost 40% of primary school enrollments; and in the last five years alone, nearly 120,000 girls have graduated from secondary school, and an estimated 40,000 are enrolled in public and private universities.[4] Despite this progress; the arch of physical, social and political oppression in Afghanistan, particularly to women, remains. It is a hugely concerning and critical factor. If Afghanistan is to advance and sustain a stable future, women’s empowerment and social inclusion is a foregone conclusion.

Despite the thoughtful and fairly comprehensive scope of institutional mandates, such as the 2009 Enactment of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (EVAW), and the 2008 National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan (now established as a National Priority Program), prohibiting child or forced marriages and abuse of women; matters concerning property, marriage, resource rights and access, are adjudicated by local opinion leaders. These worthies—village elders, local Maulvis and Mullahs  (often) illiterate and unversed in constitutional or Islamic law—decide the fate of women: life, death, transfer to other communities as restitution for tribal dispute resolution (badal) and the like. Women have little recourse to change these decisions.[5]  While in the cities and provinces, women are jailed for “moral crimes” – such as running away from all manners of abuse: incest, rape, violent assault to be abused further in prison, disowned by their families and without alternatives to assistance, and often, only to  become victims of further exploitation.

A 2011 and 2012 survey conducted Afghanistan-wide[6] revealed some interesting opinion local Afghans. 85% of respondents agreed that women and men should have equal educational opportunities; Over 85% stated that men should not vote in place of women and that women must vote for themselves; 79% responded that women should be allowed to stand up for their individual rights; 61% said they have no objection to being represented by a woman in their district development assembly or local shura; and 62% were amenable to women being allowed to work outside the home (80% of respondents were women).  Still, existing practices and social codes seem to go against these opinions. The perception of the central state for most Afghans is still fuzzy at best and for many women in particular, it could be contended that the central government and society at large does little to protect women and in has failed them.

Clearly, there are no “magic bullet” remedies—changing cultures and mindsets require time, careful monitoring and resources. That said, the building blocks to protect, empower and include women are being put in place in Afghanistan and should be carefully strengthened and protected.

Set the Context

It’s important to put the issue in a regional context - abuse of women is not the sole purview of Afghanistan. The trajectory of violence against women spreads across South Asia and beyond. Social practices in South Asia share many commonalities, especially in the treatment and regard for women. In Pakistan, India and Bangladesh as in Afghanistan, the policy and institutional mandates to penalize abuse against women; (such as acid throwing, wife burning, and child marriages, etc.) are inadequately or scarcely enacted. The gang molestation and death of a young woman in New Delhi, a few months ago and the ubiquitous sexual harassment of women throughout India and other parts of South Asia, point to the fact that in a patriarchal, and mostly segregated conservative and community oriented culture, women’s rights and protection are secondary to men. It’s commonplace among Afghan and indeed South Asian families with limited resources, for boys to receive more food than girls, better care to prevent diseases and accidents, and better treatment when they do become ill. In Afghanistan, as in neighboring India, boys are breastfed slightly longer than girls, and they are more likely to be fully vaccinated and given enhanced medical attention.  Girls are less likely than boys to be reported as ill, possibly because their illnesses receive less serious attention, and when they become ill they are less likely to be taken to a health facility for treatment.[7]  Unfortunately, women are conditioned to be purveyors of their own victimization and marginalization. It is often women, who will be the upholders of traditional values and who will side with the men in preventing daughters from going to school, or agreeing to child marriages, or participating in the abuse of women or ill treatment of their own daughters and daughters in-law.[8]  Thus, despite the heroic efforts, in some quarters to give women choices, the black cloud of female neglect, abuse and non-inclusion in the public and private spheres prevails.

Improve the Enabling Environment

If nothing else, the demography of Afghanistan, where there are more women than men (49:51% women), should make it incumbent at least economically, for women to take a more serious and participative role in all sectors of Afghanistan. However, this is not the case. The lack of enablers to prop and equip women and girls to participate in the various sectors of Afghanistan is missing.  Women face complex gender-based and systemic barriers to starting and growing their businesses, they tend to be overrepresented in micro-enterprises, in low-growth sectors and operate mainly in the informal economy or under the radar of the rural economies.  Female entrepreneurship can make a particularly strong contribution to a nascent economy and society. Instead, Afghan women find it increasingly difficult to access credit—fewer than 20% of women have successfully obtained loans to start up or sustain their businesses.[9] Further institutional and policy constraints severely hamper women’s economic success, including unequal economic practices such as: procuring and protecting property rights like house or land ownership and admission to vocational and professional education, training and development.

One counter example is in the Agricultural Sector, via a US Government Supported initiative: the Afghanistan Farm Service Alliance has shown encouraging results in a short time frame. It has successfully processed fee-for-service centers for and by women. In Kabul, the program benefitted 100,000 women and noted $1m in sales in the first year; in Balk Province sales increased to $63,000 in the first few month of operation; and in Parwan, the proposed sales targets are $200,000.[10] This success needs to be replicated across more areas. The results of women’s entrepreneurship in the prior example are a milestone as Afghanistan aspires to improve its regional and local economic indicators (including accession into the World Trade Organization). 

In addition, the need for women’s services in the labor markets in all service sectors specifically, will need to expand (midwives, nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, etc). The lowering of credit ceilings and collateral, increased enrollment and mentoring of women in business development, accounting and marketing programs and a concerted push for loans and credit via mobile banking and other innovative technologies, that will reach women, will greatly facilitate the increase of women in the workforce.[11] In addition, upcoming donor initiatives that seek to reinvigorate the lack luster enabling environment that will bolster the decade-worth of investment in women and girls to be actors in the economic, political and social fabric of Afghanistan’s fragile polity, with the assumption that a groundswell of women thirsty to participate in their country’s future, will influence even an entrenched regime to provide avenues for women to advance the future of their country. A recent Taliban communique also urged respect for women’s rights.[12]

The Security Component

As the US military and NATO-ISAF trains its forces to secure the population, it also is active in the process of training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) on national security, community policing, human rights, and reaching out to women via recruitment of women ANSF.  In addition, Female Engagement Teams (FETs) of coalition women soldiers have until recently been reaching out to Afghan women in the provinces and districts due to the restriction of male coalition troops from engaging with local Afghan women based on cultural and religious sensitivities.  These efforts will make some dents in outreach and understanding of social issues. However, sustainment of these efforts presents challenges and outcomes are often ill defined. The prevailing if cynical attitude was summed up by Halima, a woman from Kandahar, whose burqa covered face did not veil her outspoken opinion. “You think we will change because women in uniforms with guns want to question us to fill out some  reports? We will never want to be like them…and yes, we will have tea and some discussion and we do ask them for help—our men said we should.”

NATO/ISAF and the US Military recognize the need to protect vulnerable populations. It also trains its soldiers not to interfere in cultural customs and norms.  This delicate balancing between protection and intervention could be argued as not doing enough.  Should security forces (US or others) stand by while the local populace stones, beats or shoots women for adultery, or a myriad other offenses (such as -the case of the execution of Najiba)? The Field Manual 3-24 for Counterinsurgency suggests that US forces should not interfere in cultural issues.  The question is a thorny and sensitive one.  Why is this so difficult to follow through? Perhaps, the fear of provoking outrage among the population for perceived interference in their cultural patterns (visions of riots as experienced during the “Koran burning” incidents in 2011). How best to proceed in such cases perhaps will need to finessed and modeled, but to do nothing at all may be a worse abrogation of the laws of war and human rights. It will be important to train military personnel regarding culturally sensitive intervention (like engaging the host leadership, monitoring and reporting on acts of violence and ensuring local public and security protection) to safeguard helpless victims.  Noteworthy also is the fact that the US and many countries in the NATO-ISAF alliance, are a signatory to Security Council Resolution 1325, and the National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, which mandates the protection of women in conflict zones and stipulates active measures to engage the community and women in particular at the outset of developing peace talks and treaties to ensure a more equitable and sustainable peace and to protect women and girls from abuse.

Eyes on Governance and Development

In a future, not too distant timeframe, (barring complete restriction from public life, if a more draconian policy for women is followed by a future Afghan Government) public and private sector employers will have to consider accommodating both women’s and men’s requirements for balancing home and family. Given cultural attitudes, though, the balancing act will be more challenging for women. Exposure to new ideas from media, the workplace and education will transform cultural norms and mindsets over time.  Hiring practices and employment conditions need to be reviewed to reduce gender discrimination. Establishment of career paths and avenues for professional development will provide women some balance regarding work and family obligations (though in Afghanistan, family obligations will always take a higher precedence for women).  Although it has proven difficult to end gender discrimination by government legislation alone, specific issues such as women in the workplace, women’s political and economic rights will require increasing focus by the Afghan Government in its “Transformational Decade.” The National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan[13] lays out the bold vision for involving women in the public sector. In addition, it’s imperative now to disabuse the notion that a good Muslim woman has no choices but to stay within the confines of home and purdah.  This concept can gain wide coverage via the power and reach of diverse media in the form of films, television shows, blogs, advertisements, radio dramas and social messaging, etc. to highlight the acceptability and importance of women participating in mainstream society to create a better life for themselves and their families and ultimately their country. Indeed respected male and female opinion leaders stating their support for women not as secondary, but primary to social and national advancement could become powerful tools for leadership development and social transformation.

Moving Forward

It is clear that the US Government, the Government of Afghanistan and the International Community have made some targeted and significant investments and commitments on behalf of women and girls in Afghanistan and these investments have reaped dividends. But these gains are fragile and we need to shore them up with wide encouragement and support to the girls and women of Afghanistan.  Ultimately, the women will have to decide that it is in their best interests, and that of their children, families, community and country, to have a more active and empowered stake in all aspects of society. The methods and observations described above are the tools to help them weigh the benefits of inclusion and empowerment against the costs. Without a sea change in attitude and a transformation of social values, women are in danger of being pushed back into the recesses of their house and society. Perhaps it is time for a women’s movement in Afghanistan and the region.

[1] Davis, Susan – Congresswoman -

[2] Ewards, L.M. State-building in Afghanistan: A Case Showing It’s Limits? ICRC (vol. 92. No. 880. Dec 2010)


[4] USAID Indicators for Afghanistan, June 2012 (USAID Knowledge Center/OAPA)

[5] Ibid

[6] The Asia Foundation – May 2011

[7] The Lancet: Trends in selective abortions of girls in India: analysis ( May, 2011)

[8] National Commission for Women – 1993 – pg 24 (

[9] USAID Gender Indicators, Afghanistan 2012

[10] CNFA – 2008: Harnessing the Power of the Private Sector – Afghanistan Farm Services Alliances

[11] Ibid

[12]  Taliban communique – November 2011

[13] – the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan


About the Author(s)

Vanita Datta is a USAID Development Officer who is currently serving as the civilian planner for the CENTCOM region. Most recently, she served as Afghanistan Desk Officer at USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs and at the USAID Mission in Kabul as well as a PRT in the northern provinces. She has prior experience in private sector consulting with the Department of Defense and other Federal Agencies.


And Vanita, good article. Thank you for taking the time to write and expose your ideas and concerns to the broader public. Thank you as well for incorporating that comment from Halima.

Cynicism can be a healthy mechanism to ferret out someone's intentions versus their ability to act on them. We would be wise to listen to not just what Halima is saying in the sterile sense, but to what she means.


Fri, 05/10/2013 - 8:44pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III


Thank you for the discussion. True, I am not old enough to really remember the withdrawal, but I hold Frank Snepps' "Decent Interval" as a prominent and important work on the chaos that surrounded our eventual withdrawal between '72-'75. Those are good points.

It's coincidental that I spent the bulk of last week training at a facility here aboard Camp Pendleton where scores of Vietnamese refugees were once housed from '75 to '76. I passed by the Hand of Hope memorial every day, prompting me to spend some time thinking about our decent interval in Afghanistan.…

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 05/10/2013 - 7:58pm

In reply to by jcustis


GOOD POINT. I plead nolo contendere to grafting a personal concern onto a thank you note to Ms Datta for her article. You may well be too young to remember the images of the helicopters on the Saigon Embassy in 1975. I still remember that event like it was yesterday. As a teenager not at all enamoured of the Viet Nam war, I still shuddered, that evening so long ago, at the stark reality of so many people being abandoned to what seemed certain to be a bloody fate.

The North Viet Namese were likely more civilized in their treatment of these captured partisans than the Taliban or any militantly Islamic group will be. The lack of immediately discernible possibilities for action really ought not to deter us from doing our best to stand by these people, particularly the women. The first step I would recommend is that we take a head-count of how many people would be vulnerable in the event of a return-to-power of the Taliban or of a similar gang.

There may well be too many endangered people to expect political asylum to be universally available. Hardship cases would be allowed for asylum. Under those expected constraints, another thought possibly to consider would be integrating those among these vulnerable men and women of sound body in the local police forces so they at least get a gun and proficiency in using it if nothing else. One last idea for now would be to negotiate with the incoming powers on behalf of these people.

One lever might be making the international recognition the new régime will possibly covet (as the Taliban did apparently in the 1990s) contingent upon Taliban (et al.) NOT brutalizing the women and local leaders. The U.S. / N.A.T.O. alliance can act now to support this moral suasion by sponsoring resolutions in the United Nations and seeking statements from Muslim secular and clerical leaders calling on the religious leadership in Afghanistan not to harm these people.

These public statements and their implicit consequences in terms of development assistance may be enough to persuade the new leadership, if reactionary, not to indulge in behaviors toward innocents that humanity cannot properly countenance. Now, there are many who will likely, perhaps rightly, wonder what this has to do with counter-insurgency.

Perhaps these measures will have little or no bearing on the currently amortizing counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan. On the hand, such measures could shape future Special Forces counter-insurgency missions, when host-country citizens will recall how the alliance dealt with this dilemma in weighing the risk of stepping up and forward as harbingers of change versus sinking into the safety of mass submission.

Thanks for asking, Jon. Thanks again, Vanita, and my apologies if I swerved off the road laid out by your compelling essay.



Fri, 05/10/2013 - 5:19pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

It is said that if you don't have anything good to say, you shouldn't say anything, but I have a question about the way ahead in protecting Afghan women activists and local leaders.

If we are experiencing a difficult-enough time protecting them now, how can we expect to protect them after we leave? Would you propose that NATO countries offer asylum as we hurtle towards 2014? If the answer is something less than asylum, I'm not sure we have the power to do much, no matter how morally responsible it would be to try.


Jon C.

Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 04/14/2013 - 4:35pm

Dear Vanita,

I remember you in Afghanistan from the group calls on Thursday or Friday nights in RC-North. Nice to read the brains beyond the breaking-up SKYPE voice. Your article is distressing in that women continue to be very vulnerable in Afghanistan, even in parts of the country away from the Taliban.

I.S.A.F. and the leading N.A.T.O. powers have a moral obligation to find a way to protect Afghan women activists and local leaders when we depart after ten years of protecting these people. Thank you as well for bringing to light the current treatment of women and arguing for the possible necessity of a more muscular cultural intervention.

We have little time left in Afghanistan and I believe that, over time, increasingly educated and, therefore, empowered women will be the eventual agents of change of transforming an often brutal and ancient culture into a more modern and tolerant one.

Lastly, I salute your service to my country.
Gracias y saludos,
Ned McDonnell.