Women received education and were given opportunities to pursue careers in the healthcare and civil service sectors. Women had a voice in politics and were given the right to vote. Women walked freely on the streets and wore knee-length skirts. Unbeknownst to most, this was the life of Afghan women from 1940s to 1960s.
Today, most Afghan women are unemployed and receive little education, a far cry from the freedoms they were once accustomed. The Soviet war and a series of civil wars caused numerous women and children to lose their lives, with thousands of families fleeing Afghanistan. When the Taliban took over, women were denied education and violent attacks became a way of life. Women’s social rights improved only after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001.
The improvement has been notable. According to Foreign & Commonwealth Office (2014), over two million girls attended school compared to almost zero under the Taliban. Intriguingly, there are proportionally more women in Afghan parliament (27% of seats) than in UK or US currently. Although Afghan women have undisputedly become more empowered post the fall of the Taliban, culture still plays a major role in determining the trajectory of further progress, especially in villages.
A study by the University of Montana shows that village women are susceptible to being restricted by the culture they live in: they rarely question the restrictions placed on them by society, religion and Afghan culture. In practical terms this means wholesale acceptance of cultural norms. 13-year old Afghan girls are perceived to have sufficient education after learning to read the Quran and pray. Young village women are not allowed to go out alone unless they are escorted by an older woman or a young man from their families. When they are older, married village women are expected to perform traditional roles such as managing the household and doing house chores. Such restrictions often result in limited access to education and work.
In response, the Afghan government has made efforts to alleviate the plight of village women by developing various government and donor-funded schemes and programmes. For instance, World Bank AF Rural Enterprise Development Programme supports small-scale enterprises that create job opportunities to increase the earning capacity of rural residents. A beneficiary of the programme reported that she has gained more confidence and is able to earn between 15,000 and 20,000 afghanis every month.
Furthermore, non-governmental organisations such as HAGAR are taking active measures to empower Afghan women through safe accommodation, education and job opportunities.
Though a dark history of wars and oppression halted the progress of Afghan women, this slew of new legislation and programmes brings hope for Afghan women to return to their former days of freedom. Our hope is that Afghan women will once again be able to contribute economically and socially to the nation, who will in turn recognise the true value these women bring as individuals, family members and leaders of the future.
Written by Ms Clarissa Wong, with edits by Ms Deborah Looi.
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