Stand by Afghanistan’s courageous women

In America’s fourth presidential election since the 9/11 attacks, public debate has focused little on Afghanistan, from which that tragic violence was launched. But the Afghans’ struggle against extremism continues even when we may be distracted. And Americans still share a vital interest in seeing the Afghans achieve their goal of a peaceful, well-governed nation that meets their needs and aspirations. 

No group could be more powerful, or efficient, in pursuing this joint interest than the resilient Afghan women who manage to gain an education, develop their talents, and become leaders in their families, communities and nation. That is why Americans, of whatever political view, should insist that we keep supporting Afghan women in building their role as full citizens. Economists have shown for a quarter-century that educating girls and women is perhaps the most cost-effective investment for improving any population’s health and well-being. 

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When Afghanistan makes the news, it is often in ways that suggest a hopeless cause: Taliban violence, attacks on women, the spread of ISIS, a stagnant economy, or political gridlock. Yet Afghan women, and the many men allied with them, are changing the country. With international support, they have boosted girls’ school enrollment from perhaps 5,000 under Taliban rule to about 3 million in recent years. Women form 28 percent of the parliament and 36 percent of Afghanistan’s teachers. They run an estimated 3,000 businesses nationwide. 

Evidence of the courage required for these achievements emerges this week in a book titled We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope. In it, 28 Afghan women tell of struggling for liberation from the isolation and strictures of the Taliban, and of often oppressive, patriarchal practices. These personal stories remind us of the human imperative—as well as that of our own national interest—to continue the political and economic empowerment of Afghan women. 

While supporting Afghan women is vital, it’s not easy. Afghanistan is in its 37th consecutive year of war—and war, we know, is human development in reverse. The Taliban have expanded their attacks in recent years, and the war last year killed or wounded 11,000 civilians, most women or children, the highest toll since the United Nations began counting in 2009. 

The international community has responded sincerely but not always wisely to Afghanistan, often pouring in money with little planning, coordination and accountability—a problem widely noted by development professionals and U.S. and Afghan officials. Afghans, including the country’s inspiring first lady, Rula Ghani, have urged that these international efforts be better designed to ensure sustainable improvements, and particularly to reach rural women. 

How can we do better? Our best advisers are Afghan women themselves. In the book (published by the George W. Bush Institute with help from the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council) they illustrate key principles. Mina Sherzoy, an Afghan-American entrepreneur, says donor organizations too often “come in with their own ideas, without doing their homework,” offering unrealistic projects such as classroom training on women’s rights for impoverished mothers desperate to feed their children. Instead, “teach them something so they can earn money and learn their rights through labor,” says Sherzoy. “When women have more income, there’s both a decline in domestic violence and they get decision-making rights within their own families.” 

Fereshta Hazeq, who runs a Kabul printing company, stresses the need to involve men, including rural clerics whom she has recruited to women’s empowerment by quoting verses from the Koran. Zainularab Miri, who courageously defied the Taliban by running secret schools for girls under their rule, shows the importance of working at the rural grass roots, in her case building women-owned bee-keeping businesses.  

Especially clear, from this book and from countless conversations we’ve had with Afghan women, is that support for education is critical—from primary school to post-graduate studies. An example is the U.S. government’s Fulbright Program, which has provided graduate study to more than 500 Afghans since 2003. The White House last year boosted these scholarships in Afghanistan to 80 students per year, making it one of the largest Fulbright programs in the world. 

This spring, the Afghan government renewed its attempt to negotiate peace with the Taliban—a process that raises concern among women of seeing their gains reversed amid political compromise. To prevent this, Americans must urge the meaningful inclusion of Afghan women in any peace process. And whatever the evolutions of our politics—either in the United States or in Afghanistan—we must sustain our commitment to Afghanistan’s courageous women, for the future well-being of their children, and of our own.

McBride is executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs at American University, and served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. Retired Ambassador Steiner is an adviser on gender issues at the U.S. Institute of Peace. They are members of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council.