International Womens Conference - Afghanistan

"It is said that Afghanistan is the most dangerous place in the world to be born a woman. It's said to be more dangerous to be a woman in Afghanistan than to be a man in combat.

These women are surviving on the front lines. They are in combat, they are collateral damage, they are used as pawns of war, and almost every woman is hidden and isolated from the outside world.

Just a few days ago I was sitting in Afghanistan with a group of women from all over the country. I went with the intent of getting qualitative interviews, but what happened is… I heard their stories. On an intimate level. And every one of them was full of pervasive inequality and suffering.

The Taliban enforced some of the most violent and egregious limitations on women’s rights in modern statehood. And I know this audience is clearly aware of the violations. As you know these restrictions were severely and brutally enforced, the consequences included public stoning for even being accused of adultery or dishonor, they’ve been physically tortured, beaten severely, brutally mutilated, burned alive or had acid thrown at them—as well as being forced to marry at a very early age, raped or sold into prostitution, with many engaging in self-immolation as a result.

Over 50% of all girls are married by age 12, and almost 80% of Afghan women are forced into marriage by the time they are 16.

The people I met with, as they told me their stories, begged me to please, tell people what is happening to us and what will happen if they leave now. It breaks my heart because they’re trusting that the truth alone will move the international community to take action.

When a state cannot protect its people, organizations like ours are charged with providing aid to the most vulnerable and desperate. But we can barely operate in such an unstable environment, and it will only get worse without military intervention.

Over the last decade, tremendous strides have been made for Afghan women, and this is a testament to how strong and resilient they are.

 But the situation in Afghanistan is at a pivotal and dangerous point. As International Forces, including the US, continues to reduce their presence, decisions and operations that are conducted today will directly affect the future security of the nation, region and world.

Have no doubt there will be a reduction in support for all State and NGO services following international troop withdrawals. And as Afghanistan becomes more unstable, foreign aid will decline from the high benchmark of the previous decade to a country that cannot afford to sustain most of the programs and the progress that have been created.

The women who took the chance to turn to state actors and mechanisms, NGOs, women’s shelters, schools and jobs, they’re going to find it incredibly difficult and even dangerous to return to their former lives. The women I spoke with, they told me they are afraid, they’re quite sure, they will be targeted to make an example of them.

 If international forces withdraw, there will be greater instability and violence against women in the coming years. And much of the progress will be lost.

We hear about the inspiring statistics such as the high number of women serving in parliament and the new laws created to protect human rights but we must consider the current political, economic, socio-cultural, religious and tribal systems that hinder progress and put women at risk. Merely passing laws are not enough.

This week, the women I spoke with said they feel a disconnect from those perceived victories. They told me they have absolutely no choice, options or access to justice or finding support to assert their rights and interests.  You see, deeply ingrained societal norms dissuade women from being able to assert their rights, and many don’t even know they have rights.

In most cases, reporting abuse and violence triggers the loss of social and economic safety nets that women must negotiate their lives through today, so we need to look beyond the laws on the books. Because women are finding them, become irrelevant when local customs define prevailing norms.

And even though today, women should theoretically have equal rights under Afghan law. These legal protections are under-enforced. And I can see why.

During my time in-country I was walking through a particular compound that support ANP vehicles- these are police vehicles. I was shocked to see them mangled from explosions from bombs, they were full of bullet holes.

 The ANP, unfortunately, are playing a combat role as they shoulder the burden of fighting insurgency on the streets. I promise you, no woman is calling the police after she’s been brutally raped and beaten.

Another reason that many programs have failed women is I believe funding for these programs is disproportionately earmarked for Short sighted, short-term projects that are indeed designed to lift women up but disregard the cultural context of how to sustain such progress.   

Many gender-based interventions around the world have failed because they ignored the cultural authority structures.

Right now, violations of women’s rights are still far more likely to be resolved by community elders and forums. So to ignore their influence, especially given the potential weakening of state mechanisms and foreign aid- leaves most women without any option to seek help.

Societal norms still legitimize violence against women as appropriate consequences for what is deemed bad behavior. And because violating taboos also brings collective shame to the family, the women find themselves having no kind of safety net from even their own family or community… often times they help enforce the judgments.

An Afghan woman is going to weigh the potential consequences of her going out and working, sending her children to school, divorcing her violent husband, or turning to the courts for justice in a very different way than a western woman will- we are raised with an individual rights based perspective. But an Afghan woman today will realize it’s too dangerous to contravene societal norms.

We cannot try to impose a traditional structure of justice without acknowledging and trying to bypass an existing system that women are trapped in.

So what’s to be done?  First and foremost, we must lend our voices to ensuring that security remains. In reality, this means that international forces must stay in Afghanistan so that we can collectively scale our efforts.

And so that history does not repeat itself, there is a great need for civil-military interagency planning for sustainability, and we must ensure that women’s right are equally represented and fully understood.

Research and experience show that simply including women in stability operations and developmental programs does not lead to women’s security and empowerment.

Providing women with new laws and maybe a few skills, and then expecting them to conquer age-old injustices, is ineffective. And the women suffer the unintended consequences.

If we want to sustain and further the progress that has been made in Afghanistan, there needs to be sustained support and more emphasis in training and creating long-term, flexible funding arrangements.

Campaigns must broaden the focus to include existing structures, and particularly men, to target the opportunities for change more strategically. We must recognize the complexity and non-linear nature of progress in this environment.

We are here because of our commitment to protect women’s rights and unleash their potential because when we do, we know; there are measurable benefits when it comes to security, productivity, child nutrition, maternal mortality, and literacy –all the factors that ensure stability.

We know that when women succeed, families succeed. And they lift the entire community up right alongside them.

Social issues that challenge communities around the world are no longer isolated. Considering the affects of rapid globalization and an ever-connected society, what happens internationally affect us here at home and

I believe it is imperative that we recognize the importance of humanitarian intervention around the world. As horrendous and unstable the situation is in Afghanistan, I have seen hope.

We have a willing ally in Afghanistan that want peace and stability. I believe if we can create a sense of security and solidarity, we will find a space to operate programs that help people help themselves and …help secure our shared future as well." 

-Mina Chang, CEO Linking the World

Mina Chang