Women’s Rights: The Rejected “Pet Project” of Afghanistan?

By Renata Maniaci, Government Relations Intern

Establishing a safe and secure democracy in an unstable country takes a lot of effort. A crucial part of which is ensuring equality among the country’s citizens, right? Not in Afghanistan, according to an unnamed senior U.S. official quoted in The Washington Post.

Just two days before the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, the Post reported on a “shift” in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s approach toward promoting women’s rights. Apparently women in Afghanistan are getting the shaft because gender equality does not make the list of USAID’s main concerns.

“Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities,” the senior official told the Post. “There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.”

Just to be clear, that senior official did refer to women’s rights as “pet rocks.”

Four days after the Post article ran, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the U.S. government will not back away from supporting women’s rights in Afghanistan. Clinton’s was responding to a question from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) at a House panel. Lowey objected to the senior official’s statement, saying: “This is, quite frankly, unacceptable. Any progress we’ve made in Afghanistan with regard to women’s rights will be quickly rolled back by the [Afghan] government and others if we do not continue to emphasize the importance of gender equality.”

Clinton responded that the official’s statement did not reflect the Obama administration’s policy, and that the United States is providing more support right now than at any other time in history for education, health care and political empowerment programs.

Secretary Clinton’s words are encouraging, and we salute her unwavering support for women’s rights. But this incident also begs the question: Will it always take women to stand up for women? And what about the rest of the story, which did not rest exclusively on the comments of one anonymous source?

This supposed change in strategy comes on the heels of some very encouraging developments concerning women and girls in Afghanistan over the past decade. In 2001, under Taliban rule, girls were barred from attending school. Today, more than 2.5 million of girls are in school. Additionally, women currently hold 27 percent of positions in the national assembly, which is higher than most other countries in the region.

Last March, prospects for women were looking even brighter due to a USAID land reform project that sought bids insisting that the winning contractor meet specific goals to promote women’s property rights. Before the contract was awarded, however, the initiative was overhauled, and those concrete targets stripped out.

Another blow to Afghan women’s security and autonomy occurred in January, when Afghanistan’s Council of Ministers decided that women’s shelters needed to be brought under the control of the government. These shelters were used as safe places for women where they could find refuge from violence, abuse and forced marriage. They were run independently, with the blessing of the minister of women’s affairs. Recently, they have come under fire thanks to a right-wing ideologue who pushed the idea that the shelters are fronts for prostitution. As a result, President Hamid Karzai insisted that women’s shelters receive more oversight and monitoring, despite the fact that the central government has neither the resources nor the will to run these shelters effectively.

As women in the U.S. continue to fight for our own rights, we must not forget the women around the world who are fighting for the right to own land, the right to go to school, and the right to live free from violence. The struggle for gender equality is a global struggle, and must be acknowledged as such.

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