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What Afghanistan will lose if women lose

By Rebecca Sewall, Ph.D., and Manizha Wafeq

October 26, 2020   |   0 comments

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Afghan women have demonstrated their leadership in the private and public sectors over the past 19 years. Photo by Jim Huylebroek.

Today, while peace talks raise hopes in Afghanistan, the country’s women are fearful that a deal will come at a price: that their hard-won rights to participate in the economy could again be washed away by the Taliban’s rigid views of women’s role in public life.

Over the past 19 years, despite ongoing conflict, Afghan women have made an enormous contribution to the economy. Today, there are over 1,500 formal businesses in the country owned and led by women in almost all 34 provinces. These businesses have invested over $80 million and have created over 77,000 jobs for both men and women nationwide.

Women-owned businesses are not limited to traditionally “female” sectors, such as rug weaving and handicrafts but have expanded to include the higher-paying, traditionally “male-dominated” sectors, including construction, exporting, manufacturing and services like information technology, private schools, private health clinics, restaurants and logistics. In the informal sector, there are more than 60,000 businesses owned and run by women, who are participating in trainings, exhibitions and trade shows to make market contacts and enter the formal economy. Today, women constitute over 20 percent of the employees in the Afghan public and private sectors, in industries including banking, telecom and airlines, according to the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Women are crucial to Afghanistan’s economy and future economic growth, but many wonder how the peace process will reconcile their newfound economic gains with the Taliban’s views on women’s role in society.

During the peace talks, the Taliban has said it would assure that women’s rights would be upheld “within the Islamic framework.” While many Afghan women agree that an Islamic framework offers a path forward that protects and supports their rights, the Taliban may have a different interpretation.

However, Afghanistan expert Johnny Walsh at the U.S. Institute for Peace notes, “Though still deeply conservative, they [the Taliban] now acknowledge women’s rights to work, own property, and be educated, among other things. In the context of a negotiation, they may concede more.” Others still worry that there have not been any concrete steps yet taken to prevent the Taliban from using women’s rights as a bargaining chip to secure other concessions during the peace talks or in their aftermath.

Rangina Hamidi, Afghanistan’s Acting Minister of Education who traveled to Doha to observe the talks, said at a panel on Oct. 21: “I’m worried about the future for my daughters and sisters. But we have no option but to fight on” for women’s rights.

Negotiators must be prepared to strike a delicate balance between protecting women’s role in the future economy and keeping the Taliban at the table by mitigating any potential backlash from conservative actors.

This backlash may not be limited to extremist parties but may also arise from ordinary Afghans in light of economic hardship from a shrinking economy combined with the pressure to find jobs for demobilized fighters, returning refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as the estimated 400,000 to 600,000 youth entering the labor force each year. Efforts to prioritize the economic engagement of women may be viewed negatively by some who see women’s advancement as coming at the expense of “more deserving” groups upon which it is presumed that peace depends.

The current Afghan government has stated that it is not willing to roll back women’s rights in any effort to secure peace. Likewise, given the state of the economy, it is likely that any post-talk economic reconstruction will be largely funded by international donors. This will work to women’s advantage. As Walsh commented, “An Afghanistan that trades away democracy and basic freedoms—especially for women—is not one that the vital donors in the U.S. and Europe will bankroll.”

Regardless, fears persist that women will lose some of the progress they’ve gained as negotiators look for common ground.

Afghan women have made an enormous economic contribution, and marginalizing them from the economy would come at Afghanistan’s peril. Pushing women out will also come at the expense of economic growth just at the moment when growth is most vital to secure peace. The thousands of businesses and jobs and millions of dollars in investment created by female businesswomen are more essential to securing peace and fostering real economic growth in the country than appeasing those who would rather turn back the clock on women’s rights.

Rebecca Sewall, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor for Gender and Social Inclusion at Creative. Manizha Wafeq is President of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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