The Blog

Will President Obama Stand With Afghan Women?

Failure to do so will constitute moral and strategic failure.

4:00 PM, Dec 2, 2009 • By ELISE JORDAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In Pakistan and Iraq and among groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, women have proven capable of becoming equally or more radicalized than men. This is not the case in Afghanistan--and it is a shame that President Obama did not seize the promise and potential of Afghan women as part of his new strategy because failure to do so will constitute moral and strategic failure.

Earlier this year President Obama acknowledged that a reconstituted Taliban government would result in "the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people--especially women and girls," but last night President Obama did not even mention Afghan women during his long-awaited address.

The president should reassert a commitment to Afghanistan's women as full and equal participants in Afghanistan's future as part of the way forward. Unfortunately, the advancement of women's rights in Afghanistan has been superseded by seemingly more pressing issues: the growing insurgency and corrupt government.

But the female faction--half of the country--is critical to countering both of those problems. Not only do we have a moral duty to help these women, it is in our strategic best interest to do so. Obama should capitalize on a new plan and President Karzai's second term by advocating for tangible integration of Afghan women in government and in the workforce.

After the Taliban regime, hundreds of millions of dollars were directed to supporting women's activities--but there has been little sustainable change in women's participation in government or business. Without a continued, concerted effort on the issue, funding alone will have limited impact.
To start, the Obama administration should pressure Karzai to appoint women to high-ranking positions, especially in his new cabinet. Whether current envoys possess such leverage is questionable, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already made inroads to repairing the administration's relationship with Karzai during her inaugural visit, and she is more than likely eager to pursue this goal.

Karzai has few female appointees to tout. Currently, only one of the thirty-four appointed governors is a woman--Governor Habiba Sarobi of peaceful Bamiyan. And only one of the twenty-six ministers in Afghanistan is a woman--at the helm of the largely irrelevant Ministry of Women's Affairs, among the lowest budgeted ministries. There is not even a single Ministry spokeswoman.
Increasing the number of women does not have to be just a gender equity measure; it is a practical change that could curb corruption. Although research is divided on the notion of a "fairer sex," the last eight years have shown that many Afghan men in government are adept at stealing large sums of money intended for the Afghan people. We lose little by giving women a chance to govern responsibly, and we have the potential to gain a lot.

In Kabul there is a coterie of educated Afghan women who braved the Taliban years and repatriated Afghan women who returned when Afghanistan was liberated. These women possess the formidable will and gravitas necessary to serve in leadership positions in a difficult and male-dominated culture--and official pressure from the donor community would help move their efforts forward. If women are integrated in high-level positions, a revitalized women's rights lobby would include and mobilize rural women, who face a survivalist struggle against poverty and violence. In such insurgent-ridden areas, women are usually a moderating voice against extremism--and if empowered could do more to combat this threat to the country at large.

At the very least, Karzai should appoint a strong female leader at a Ministry where she could make the most impact--the Ministry of Labor. Supporting women in the workplace can directly attack the poverty and unemployment fueling much of the insurgency, as Afghans overwhelmingly responded when queried in a recent Oxfam poll.

Afghans are increasingly concerned with women's employment opportunities. In 2006, two percent of Afghans polled by the Asia Foundation were concerned with the integration of women in the workforce; today, that number has risen to almost thirty percent who find lack of employment opportunity for women a pressing issue.