In the two decades before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, continuous civil strife in Afghanistan deprived Afghan women of the opportunity to participate in the political life of the country. The lack of social and economic freedoms left them marginalized and vulnerable, a financial burden on an impoverished society. Together with children and the elderly, they became victims of unspeakable atrocities. And during the Taliban period, any glimmer of hope for emancipation and empowerment of Afghan women was snuffed out, as they were denied basic human rights, including access to education and freedom of movement.
The long agony for Afghanistan's women ended with the fall of the Taliban and the re-engagement of the international community in Afghanistan in late 2001. The Bonn Agreement of that year set the stage for establishment of democracy and with democratic change came increasing freedom for women, who have been playing an active role in Afghanistan's reconstruction.
The last objective of the Bonn Agreement was technically achieved on September 18, 2005, through the holding of national elections. On that day, the women of Afghanistan continued to make history as they turned out in unexpectedly large numbers to elect members of parliament and 34 provincial councils, in the first such poll in almost 30 years. Women voters accounted for 43 percent of voters, in defiance of many terrorist threats from Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents.
In the election, more than 600 women candidates competed for the 68 (out of a total of 249) parliamentary seats guaranteed for women under the Afghan constitution. However, preliminary poll results indicate that women would have won about 27 percent of the seats even without the constitutional quota. Women did well on ballots in most locales, including Kabul where Shukria Barekzai, editor of Women Mirror weekly magazine, finished 24th out of the 33 candidates that got elected.
Fauzia Gailani got 17,000 votes in Herat, and Malai Joya got 8,000 votes in Farah. With Shukria of Kabul, these women have emerged as icons of this landmark parliamentary election. They demonstrated that, given the chance, the women of Afghanistan can and will be full players in the reconstruction process of our country.
In late December, the first session of the parliament is expected to convene with a higher percentage of women representatives, 27.3 percent, than many of the most established democracies, including the US Congress (15.2 percent) and British Parliament (19.7 percent).
Beyond parliament, an increasing number of women have returned to the workplace as members of the cabinet, governors, ambassadors, physicians, businesswomen, lawyers, army officers and teachers. In these roles, they hold numerous leadership positions in the private, public and civil society sectors of Afghanistan. This has happened as a direct result of the government's commitment to ensuring gender equality and the protection of women's rights under the constitution.
Last December, President Hamid Karzai appointed three women ministers to the cabinet, including two-time former presidential candidate and women's rights activist Massouda Jalal as the Minister of Women's Affairs. Minister Jalal now works to ensure that the government's gender-sensitive policies are fully implemented to safeguard the rights of women under the constitution. In the meantime, Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is spearheading the government's efforts through its 55 diplomatic missions abroad to harness the goodwill and support of the international community for the women of Afghanistan.
Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah co-chairs the US-Afghan Women Council. In January 2002, President Karzai and US President George W. Bush established an initiative to promote public-private partnerships between US and Afghan institutions, as well as to mobilize private-sector resources to help Afghan women. This initiative focuses on four areas: political leadership and legal awareness, economic empowerment, education and health. In collaboration with the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the initiative has contributed to the establishment of resource centers in 34 provinces to provide Afghan women with services in the above areas.
Only four years after the overthrow of the Taliban, these laudable achievements point to an important fact: the international re-engagement in Afghanistan has been paying off in a major way, particularly in the securing of human and civil rights for Afghan women. However, to keep up the momentum requires consolidation of Afghanistan's new democracy through long-term investment in the socio-economic development of the country.
Afghanistan still has some of the world's lowest social and economic indicators, ranking 173 out of 178 nations on the UN's 2004 Human Development Index. Women and children, who constitute two thirds of the Afghan population and are the key to Afghanistan's long-term development, are the main victims of the past 25 years of war and destruction. It is only through sustainable investment benefiting this large segment of the population that the future of Afghanistan can truly be secured.
M. Ashraf Haidari is First Secretary in Political/Security & Development Affairs at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. E-mail: Haidari@embassyofafghanistan.org