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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Special Events (2000 - 2009)

The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan



The central objective of this paper is to put the discussion of women’s rights in Afghanistan in the context of the multiple transitions entailed by the process of post-conflict reconstruction: a security transition (from war to peace), a political transition (to the formation of a legitimate and effective state) and a socioeconomic transition (from a “conflict” economy to sustainable growth). These transformations do not occur in a social vacuum but build upon existing societal arrangements that condition and limit the range of available opportunities.

The first section contextualizes current attempts at securing women’s rights in the troubled history of state-building and state-society relations in Afghanistan. The latter were marked by tensions between a rentier state bolstered by foreign subsidies, which had a relatively weak engagement with society, and a rural hinterland that both resisted the incursions of the state and attempted to represent tribal interests within it. Attempts at modernization, including the expansion of women’s rights, were instigated by a male state elite whose bids to centralize power were thwarted at various junctures. The issue of women’s rights was used as a bargaining counter in contests between social forces whose geopolitical entanglements produced sharp swings of the pendulum between extremes such as the Soviet-backed socialist experiment under the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the Islamist policies of the Pakistani-backed Taliban. However, in a context where the state’s interface with local communities, whether in terms of the legal framework, revenue collection or service delivery, was always limited, attempts to analyse women’s rights with reference only to government policies suffer from serious shortcomings. It is, rather, to the profound transformations brought about by years of protracted conflict that one must look for a better appraisal of obstacles to and opportunities for more gender-equitable development in Afghanistan.

The second section discusses the implications of the far-reaching changes in social relations brought about by years of war and displacement following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A predominantly rural country whose population achieved relatively self-sufficient livelihoods was transformed into a fragmented polity where a significant proportion of the economy is based on illicit, criminalized networks of trade in drugs (opium poppy, in particular) and commodities such as timber and emeralds, smuggling of goods and human trafficking. The central argument put forward in this section is that routine violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan are determined by analytically distinct but overlapping and mutually reinforcing sets of influences: the dynamics of gendered disadvantage, the erosion of local livelihoods and growing poverty, the criminalization of the economy, and insecurity due to the predations of armed groups and factions. Particular combinations of new pressures (such as poverty, indebtedness and predation by local strongmen) and existing practices (such as the early marriage of girls against the payment of brideprice) create outcomes that may easily be misidentified as unmediated expressions of local “culture”, thus detracting critical attention from the full nexus of influences that deepen the vulnerability of girls and women.

The third section focuses on processes of institutional development and reform since the Bonn Agreement in 2001.The national machinery set up for the advancement of women consists of: the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA); the Office of the State Minister for Women (OSMOW), set up to provide policy guidance with particular reference to legislative and judicial reform processes; the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), tasked with the advancement of women’s rights under one of its five programme areas; and the Gender Advisory Group (GAG), a donor-government co-ordination body that assists in formulating a national framework and budget for gender mainstreaming. The most tangible gains so far have been achieved in the area of legal rights, which were enshrined in the new Constitution of January 2004 and provide legal guarantees for women’s equality as citizens and for their political representation. Many unresolved questions remain concerning the respective roles of Islamic and tribal laws and the stipulations of international treaties to which the government is a signatory (such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women/CEDAW which was ratified without reservations in March 2003). Without a process of consensus-building through political normalization and reconciliation, the risk that women’s rights will be held hostage to factional politics remains high. The expansion of women’s formal rights cannot, in any case, translate into substantive benefits in the absence of security and the rule of law. Moreover, women’s formal rights to civic participation may have limited impact in a context where they remain wards of their households and communities and where their most basic entitlements to education and health continue to be denied.

The conclusion draws attention to crippling disjunctures between different facets of post-conflict transition. Legal and governance reforms have advanced at a faster pace than has been achieved in the security sector or the transition to sustainable livelihoods. There is also a disjuncture between, on the one hand, the time frames adopted and outputs expected by international actors driving the women’s rights agenda, and on the other, the length of time required for non-cosmetic changes in societal relations to develop as a result of peace-building. Since the issue of women’s rights continues to occupy a highly politicized and sensitive place in the struggles between contending political factions in Afghanistan, this disjuncture may itself produce unintended effects, with disempowering consequences for women.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Feb 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 92-9085-056-6
    From: UNRISD