Naming the Issue: Women in Afghanistan

Sometimes I get mail addressed to "Mr. Borany Penh." More than once I've discovered -- in the nick of time -- that I've been given male-only quarters. I guess these comedies of error are to be expected with a unique name. But it's no laugh in parts of the world where it's dangerous just to be a woman. In Afghanistan, despite the enormous strides to improve their status, women are still a very vulnerable group. What's more, there is great risk that their status could significantly deteriorate with a reduced international presence unless there is a commitment to sustain the gains.

Afghanistan has come a long way in improving women and girls' welfare since the fall of the Taliban in 2002. Compared to the Taliban era when virtually not a single girl was allowed to attend school, more than a third of all students in school now are female, according to the Afghan government. Maternal mortality rates have dropped by nearly 80 percent and women's life expectancy has increased by 15 to 20 years.

Women also participate more widely in the country's economic, social, and political life. A recent USAID survey found that some 80 percent of Afghan women have regular or occasional access to a mobile phone, giving them important access to information, services and opportunities. Women have constituted 28 percent of those serving in Parliament, more than in some Western countries, and a few of the possible candidates running for president are women.

Despite this progress, life is still harsh for most Afghan women. The female literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world. One in 10 children still dies before age five and one Afghan woman dies about every two hours from pregnancy-related causes. Violence against women is tragically common and the little protection provided under the country's laws and institutions has been recently challenged by conservative elements in Parliament. The new electoral law reduced the number of reserved seats for women in provincial councils from 25 percent to 20 percent. So it's no surprise that Afghanistan still ranks toward the bottom (175 out of 186) of the UNDP's 2012 Gender Inequality Index.

To help Afghanistan overcome many of these failings and build on past achievements, USAID recently announced the Agency's largest gender program ever, "Promote." The initiative will target educated Afghan women (aged 18-30), representing the new cohorts of female high school graduates who've received uninterrupted education since the fall of the Taliban, to take on greater decision-making roles. It will help strengthen women's rights groups, boost female economic participation, increase the number of women in government positions, and help women gain leadership, advocacy and business and management skills. USAID's commitment to Afghan women also includes the creation of an institute for gender and development studies and an international scholarship program for Afghan women pursuing careers in highly technical professions.

The new program recognizes the critical role Afghan women play in the country's future. As USAID's Administrator Rajiv Shah explained, "It is a unique effort to ensure that women are a major part of Afghanistan's social, economic and political fabric over the next decade, because if they're not Afghanistan is not likely to be successful." With possible additional funding from other international donors who have expressed interest in supporting the program, "Promote" could total $416 million over the program's five-year life.

Transition is a pivotal time for all Afghans -- but especially for women. Major work is needed to improve gender equality and safeguard past gains from backsliding. With programs like "Promote" we can go beyond naming the issue to harnessing the efforts of all stakeholders, whether Mr., Mrs., or Ms., toward fulfilling this vision.