Giving women a vote and a voice in Afghanistan's future

Afghan women participate in Free and Quality Education Campaign launch. Photo credit: UN Photo/UNAMA

Just over a decade ago, Afghan women were not seen and not heard in public life. Hidden behind a wall of conservative attitudes and behaviours, unable to leave the home, forced to cover themselves from head to toe - in every way, they were second class citizens. They were denied an education and access to healthcare, denied employment, and denied freedoms we take for granted – like the freedoms of association and expression. They were denied even the most basic dignities, and routinely subjected to sexual and physical violence.

But now, while huge challenges remain in many parts of the country, Afghan women are taking control of their lives, pushing for equal rights. They are once again insisting on having a voice and a vote in deciding Afghanistan’s future as well as their own. And it’s a change that is increasingly being driven by young people, in a country where almost seven in every ten people are under the age of 25.

In March I visited Kabul and Helmand and was inspired by young Afghan men and women who are determined that progress made will not be lost.  They were determined that their daughters will have the same freedoms and rights that others around the world – the freedom to make their own choices about their lives, the right to be educated, the right to be a full member of society, to contribute to the economy and to have a political voice. 

Afghan women are making their position clear – they will not accept a return to the past, but they will be an integral part of the future of Afghanistan.  

Sustainable progress  is also about giving women the skills, the knowledge and the confidence to take control of their lives.  And for me, doing that all boils down to one thing: education.   There is a saying in Islam that if you educate a girl you educate a family; if you educate a man, you educate an individual.  We are starting to see progress - 39% of the 5.9 million Afghan children regularly attending school are girls, over one in four teachers are now women, both up from virtually nil in 2001. 

Empowered, educated and highly motivated women such as  Habiba Sorabi, the Governor of Bamiyan Province;  Dr Sima Samar, the Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Fawzia Koofi MP are inspiring young Afghan girls. They are positive, courageous role models, showing Afghanistan and the rest of the world what can be achieved. 

There are Afghan female doctors, engineers, pilots, lawyers, politicians, business women, leaders and decision-makers.  Brave women, such as the female police officers I spoke to in Helmand, are determined to contribute to the provision of security in their communities. Step by step, they are rising to the challenge, taking their rightful place in Afghan society and the country is becoming a better place for it.

‘Afghanistan has gone too far forward to return to the situation under Taliban rule’.  That is the message I heard consistently when I spoke to Afghan women leaders, Afghan youth representatives and Afghan civil society. So what has really changed?   My time in Afghanistan drove home the reality of how far the country has moved on.  The Afghan media is widespread and active; people have access to social media and are inextricably linked to the rest of the world.  The country can never be as isolated as it was; the women of Afghanistan can never again feel alone. 

The world is watching, and we care.   I am personally committed to seeing a future Afghanistan where women are integrated in to every aspect of society.  I know that the Secretary of State for International Development, my Rt Hon Friend, Justine Greening, is equally determined.

But we are not naive, nor complacent.  Afghan women and girls will face difficulties; there will be significant challenges and it will take time.  Afghanistan has experienced over 30 years of conflict, it has ingrained conservative values and its future remains uncertain.  Afghan women continue to experience appalling levels of violence and discrimination.

 Women’s freedom to utilise their rights is patchy throughout the county   geographical factors play a part, local cultures, values and influences also have a role to play.  Change must happen, but it must be driven from within, by the Afghan people. And it is not something that women can do on their own; Afghan men and boys need to be part of, and committed to, the notion of equality - only then can we ensure that every Afghan girl is given the best possible start in life.

But while this change must come from within Afghanistan, there is much that the international community is doing to help pave the way. $16b has been committed until 2015, and the UK’s contribution of £178million per year until at least 2017 is making real changes to the lives of Afghan women and girls.

I said earlier that education was vital. And it’s at the heart of everything we are doing to promote equality in Afghanistan. From providing basic education to increase the woefully low literacy rates (thought to be around 20% for 15-24 year old Afghan women) to expanding economic opportunities for women such as providing  vocational training to almost 4000 females, and providing essential business advice.

For instance, funding to the Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Fund provides assistance to fledgling female entrepreneurs,  such as the Afghan Tailoring Company in Helmand, a small female run business which now employs  30  female workers. 

In addition, we are strengthening women’s voices through civil society: supporting access to justice and healthcare and further involvement in the political process, including direct support, training and workshops for female candidates in the forthcoming elections.  

Nobody can deny that there is still a long way to go. But even though the challenges are great, I truly believe Afghanistan is heading in the right direction.

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Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities. 

This blog was originally posted on Amnesty International UK's website. To see the blog as it originally appeared, click here.