As the United States convened the NATO summit in Chicago last weekend, the fate of Afghanistan’s women was on my mind. This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the return of Afghanistan’s girls to the classroom. During the Taliban era, women were denied education. Women could not work, even when they were the sole providers for their families. Under the Taliban dictatorship, it was decreed that women should be neither seen nor heard.
By 2002, the consequences of such cruelty were abundantly clear. Afghanistan faced a humanitarian crisis. Seventy percent of its people were malnourished, and 25 percent of children died before age 5. A decade ago, after years of war with the Soviet Union followed by the rise of the Taliban, basic infrastructure, such as roads and schools, lay in ruins.
But the Afghan story is changing. Over the past 10 years, there has been remarkable progress. Four thousand schools have been built, and more than 100,000 new teachers have entered the classroom. Today, girls make up 37 percent of the 7 million Afghan students in primary and secondary schools. During Taliban rule, only 900,000 children, all male, attended school.
Adult learning has also accelerated. More than 62,000 Afghans attend universities. The co-educational American University of Afghanistan, which opened in 2006 with 50 students, has more than 1,700 full- and part-time students and offers Afghanistan’s leading MBA program. This fall, a record 52 Afghans will come to the United States as Fulbright scholars. A basic literacy and math education program that I visited in 2008 is reaching more than 300,000 Afghan adults, 60 percent of them women.
Innovative private programs are also transforming Afghanistan. Businesses and charities risk safety and money to improve conditions for ordinary citizens. One example is the Chicago-based Arzu Studio Hope, launched in 2004 to employ Afghan women as rug weavers. What began as a business opportunity has become a comprehensive revitalization project. Arzu, which means hope in Dari, provides employment, job training, education, basic health care and access to clean water for female employees and their families.
Despite these gains, however, Afghanistan’s progress remains tenuous. A March 2 fatwa from the Ulema Council, which advises the Afghan government on religious matters, actively encouraged a return to shades of Taliban-era female repression, including support for husbands beating their wives. It declared men to be “fundamental” and women “secondary.”
Last fall, I received a letter from an Afghan woman who wrote encouragingly of refugees who are now home, girls who attend school and women who are able to work and participate in public life. But she added, “Though many victories have been won for the Afghan people, I fear it is all at risk, and the return of the Taliban is an impending threat.”
Many of the vital gains that Afghan women have achieved over the past decade were made because of the sacrifice and support of the United States and the broader NATO alliance. The United States and NATO deserve international gratitude for their role in helping to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan. But now, as the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan changes, the world must remember the women of Afghanistan.
In 2001, the world’s eyes were opened to the horrors suffered by Afghanistan’s women.
But if progress is to last, business and educational investments must be protected and expanded. And the Afghan government cannot negotiate away women’s rights.
Having already seen the terrible cost of denying the most basic of human freedoms, do we dare risk the consequences now of abandoning the women of Afghanistan?