Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Slow Progress on Women's Rights

The women’s affairs ministry is trying to combat centuries of mistreatment and violence, but many are demanding more rapid results.
By Mohammad Jawad
Women in parliament, girls in school, uncovered female faces on the streets – life has changed significantly for women in this country since the Taleban regime was ousted more than four years ago.

But few would dispute that Afghan women are among the most disadvantaged on the planet.

“A cruel joke has it that in Afghanistan, women never grow old,” said Massouda Jalal, Minister of Women’s Affairs. The reason? Women’s life expectancy is only 44 years, one of the lowest in the world.

Only 15 per cent of women are literate, compared with 50 per cent for men. Statistics show that those women who do work are paid only half as much as their male counterparts. Up to 80 per cent of marriages are arranged without the consent of the bride, and maternal mortality rates in some parts of Afghanistan are the highest ever recorded.

Most of these conditions pre-date the Taleban, and are more the product of deeply-rooted cultural traditions than a product of the fiercely fundamentalist but short-lived regime.

Because of this, Jalal and her ministry are taking a long-term approach to improving women’s lives.

Over the next ten years, Jalal said that if her policies are implemented; all girls under the age of five will be vaccinated against a range of diseases; 60 to 70 per cent of girls will attend school; maternal mortality will fall by 15 per cent; and the number of female teachers will increase by 50 per cent.

"The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has created a national work plan for women and tied it into Afghanistan’s national strategy,” said Jalal.

Jalal, a medical doctor, is the third woman to head the ministry, which was created in 2001. Sima Samar, the first person in the post, now chairs the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Her successor, Habiba Sorabi, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai as governor of Bamian province, the first woman to be elevated to such a post.

Jalal, who finished sixth in a field of 18 presidential candidates in 2004, has been in charge of the ministry since December 2004.

She points to the ministry’s numerous achievements since she took office, such as encouraging women to run for parliament and the provincial councils in the 2005 elections and helping to form women’s councils and associations throughout the country.

Nor is she above taking more direct action to foster change, as when she led a group of women who went to pray in a Kabul mosque earlier this month. Mosques are generally all-male bastions.

Jalal’s high-profile actions seem geared to call more attention to her ministry’s role.

After the donors’ conference in London earlier this year, Jalal made a widely publicised plea for more funding for women’s projects. She recommended that up to 10 per cent of the 10 billion US dollars pledged for Afghanistan’s reconstruction at the conference be set aside for women. The suggestion met with approval at international level. but the Afghan government did not respond.

Some observers wonder whether the government is really serious about women’s rights.

“The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is just a symbol, a way for the government to say to the world community and to women within Afghanistan that women are important to it. The government does not take the ministry seriously,” said Soraya Parlika, head of the All-Afghan Women’s Union.

Last year the ministry had a budget of approximately 2.4 million dollars, out of the government’s overall 632-million-dollar spending plan.

With funding at the current level, the pace of reform is unlikely to accelerate.

“In the past four years the ministry has not been able to really tackle women’s problems,” said Parlika. “And without the support of the government, they won’t be able to do anything in the next 40 years.”

Experts disagree on whether the ministry is doing enough to help women.

“Women are the most vulnerable, they have sustained the major losses due to war and society’s problems,” said Bashir Bejan, a political analyst. “But since its creation, the women’s ministry has done nothing to resolve the problems of women.”

But Angeles Martinez, the head of Medica Mondiale, a non-governmental organisation that specialises in women’s affairs, told IWPR that she was quite satisfied with the ministry’s performance.

“We launch all of our projects in conjunction with the ministry of women’s affairs,” she said. “The ministry is cooperating with us in all fields.”

But many ordinary Afghan women say the ministry’s programmes have done little to improve their lives.

"I have not seen any effect from this ministry yet, so it doesn’t matter to me whether it exists or not,” said Anis Gul, 46, a housewife buying vegetables from a market stall in central Kabul.

Najibah, 34, who teaches at the Wazirabad Middle School, is a widow. “Sometimes I have nothing to feed my children for days on end,” she said. “I don’t even let my neighbours know about this. What has the ministry done for me? Afghan women have many problems, and the ministry must look into them.”

Fahima, 36, a teacher at Tajwar Sultana High School, complained that the ministry’s main accomplishment has been to promote itself on television. But she said she believes it still fulfilled a valuable function in giving women a forum to air their difficulties.

"The existence of this ministry serves as a haven for women, a place where they can go to talk about their problems,” she said.

Jalal seems unruffled by the criticism, although she acknowledges the difficulties she and her ministry face, and cautions against over-inflated expectations.

“If we work together to make the situation better, it will take two or three decades,” she said. “If we don’t, it will take two or three centuries.”

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.