Rural women of Afghanistan: General Issues, Challenges, Options and Recommendations: Speech delivered by Dr. Massouda Jalal Founding Chairperson of Jalal Foundation anFormer Minister of Women, Afghanistan in the Conference of RuralWomen conducted by the Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA) on 30-31 October 2013 in Islamabad.
“I bring you warm greetings of peace and solidarity from your sisters in Afghanistan. I also congratulate and thank you and the organizers of this conference – the Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA), Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), Pakistan, South-Asia Partnership (SAP-PK), Bedari and SPO — thank you very much for allowing me to share with you the situation of rural women in Afghanistan.
The rural women of Pakistan and Afghanistan share many things in common. The roots of our disadvantage spring from the same ideology. The factors that make it hard for us to attain our fullest potentials are inter-connected. Our aspirations are identical, our strategies are interdependent, and our life experiences are enriched by the collective wisdom that we gather together as we traverse our thorny pathways.
1. OVERVIEW: ISSUES AND CHALLENGES
The situation of rural women in Afghanistan is widely differentiated by ethnic groups/tribes, socio-economic demography, distance to urban centers, climatic conditions, cultural influence and many other factors. In general, however, the Afghan rural women and girls are exposed to many factors that make them less advantaged and more vulnerable than women in urban areas. The situation that I will describe is only a snapshot of their challenges in such a complex context which is recognized globally as one of the worst places to live as a woman.
1.1 Extreme vulnerability of female heads of households and widows.
Around 80 percent of the estimated 30 million Afghan population lives in the rural areas. This figure equates to some 12 million female population scattered throughout our 34 provinces. We have an estimated 2.7 million households among rural and nomadic populations with 3 to 4 female members per household. There are around 57,000 female heads of households, majority of which have no sustainable source of income or economic skills and capital – making them the most vulnerable sector of our population. There are also 660,000 widows, around half a million of whom live in rural communities. They are relatively young, with an average age of only 35 years, and mostly unable to read and write. Around 90 percent of those widows have children and most of them experience great difficulty in keeping them from starvation.
Despite this reality, there is no meaningful government strategy to address their vulnerabilities except for a meager monthly dole-out that barely meets the needs of the family. In Afghanistan, widows and female heads of households are doubly jeopardized by a patriarchal society and economic system. Not only are they denied of their right to inheritance. Because of traditions that constrain their mobility and access to training, work opportunities, market and capital, maintaining a living remains a daily battle against starvation and gender-based discrimination. To be a widow or a head of household for an Afghan woman is like being sentenced to slow death through material deprivation and emotional torture.
1.2 Harsh rural realities
If Afghanistan is one of the worst places to live as a woman, residing in its rural areas is many times as hard. According to the Ministry of Economy and the World Bank, the rate of poverty is significantly higher in Afghanistan’s rural areas, which is placed at 36 percent, compared to urban areas’ poverty rate of 29 percent.
As you know, billions of dollars have been poured into our peace and development strategy that began in 2001. Nevertheless, twelve years after, we neither have peace nor development. Much of the reconstruction initiatives have not reached our rural communities; and the peace strategy drove the armed fighting to the countryside. It was a strategy that failed to anticipate the impacts to rural people. Our rural communities remain underdeveloped like before where traversable roads are few, unlighted, and unprotected against lawless elements. Mass media, communication and information technology are not available in remote areas and people depend on radio for updates on national situation. Social services such as health, education, transportation and housing are also very limited, which results in lower female literacy, higher incidents of maternal deaths, poor health, and marginal participation of rural women in national affairs.
Power and water are available only to 20 and 19 percent of the rural population, respectively. Like in many other countries, the responsibility for the collection of fuel and water in rural areas are assigned to women and children. Due to the scarcity of these resources in my country, women and children have to walk long distances, carry heavy weight over their heads, and spend long hours to procure the basic necessities of life. These backbreaking tasks that they do every day without fail are not valued, not recognized, and not considered as work.
Rural people in Afghanistan have nothing much to depend on, other than livestock production and agriculture. This is also the sector where most rural women congregate to earn a living. Rural women in Afghanistan spend many hours in the field tilling the soil, planting the seeds, applying fertilizers, harvesting, and sorting out and packaging harvests. Yet, they receive disproportionately low wages or get no payment at all for their agricultural work. In certain instances, male children even receive higher wages than female agricultural workers. In view of traditional restrictions imposed on Afghan women’s mobility, and because of their traditional exclusion from trading and marketing domains, our rural women’s agricultural products are sold by Afghan men who also keep the proceeds of the sales and make the decisions on how women’s income will be spent.
Apart from these, agricultural production in Afghanistan is circumscribed by harsh climatic changes and rough terrains that are largely unfit for agricultural cultivation. Land is infertile and unsuitable for diversified production, and the environment does not provide adequate resources for the grazing needs of livestock herds. These harsh conditions negatively affect the overall economic productivity of rural households and their capacity to spend for health and education of family members. In such a situation of resource scarcity, female children and women stand to lose in the allocation of food, educational opportunities, and other family needs because of flagrant gender discrimination.
1.4 Living with armed conflict and harmful traditions
As I adverted earlier, Afghanistan has never truly experienced real peace. During the past 12 years when we were aggressively pursuing peace from the capital, armed conflicts continued to rage in many rural communities. Many provinces are still in the same predicament up to the present, and may remain that way in the many more years to come. Like it or not, rural women will have to live with its consequences.
During episodes of armed fighting, women stand at the forefront of securing the babies, children, elderlies and people with disability. Many of our rural women lose their lives and limbs in the process. Those who survive have to live with the trauma of burying their killed relatives or taking over the breadwinning function amidst devastated economic base, lack of earning opportunities, and with nearly no support from the State.
As fundamentalist forces return to the mainstream of our life, more and more school girls and teachers in rural communities will have to face the threats of acid throwing, abduction and assassination, water poisoning, burning of schools and night letters. As of the present, we are already seeing the resurgence of extreme violence against women (VAW), including mutilation, beheading, assassination, stoning to death, public execution and honor killing. This worsening trend has been confirmed by statistics from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. And since the fundamentalists’ influence is stronger in rural areas, rural women are bound to disproportionately suffer the tyranny of extremism. A pattern of non-responsiveness by protective agencies of government has also been noted as well as the involvement of some police officers in cases of rape, killings, kidnappings and other forms of violence against women. The justice mechanisms of the government are not present in all rural communities, and the fate of many women survivors of violence are left to the traditional justice system whose judgment are based on anti-women religious edicts rather than what is provided under the law.
Peace and justice in Afghanistan are all in the hands of men. In rural communities, the business of decision making through the “shura” has traditionally excluded women. Decision making inside the home is also a male domain. In the recent past, there have been efforts to include women as members of the peace shuras. We have also organized more than 1,200 women’s shuras throughout the country. But these gains are limited and fragile. The next two years will see whether they will move forward or vanish into oblivion in our landscape of peace and reconstruction.
Within such scenario, many harmful traditions that consign Afghan women and girls to a lifetime of suffering persist throughout the country. Child and forced marriage, exchange of girls to settle inter-family conflicts, domestic slavery, forced pregnancy, women battering, and other forms of violence against women continue to be rampant. The younger women in rural communities are most vulnerable to forced marriage, abduction, frequent pregnancies, involuntary servitude, family violence, and false accusation of moral crimes that could lead to public flogging or execution. Where no better recourse is available, self-immolation or suicide among victims of violence is still happening in some parts of the country.
- 2. OPTIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Sisters, the situation in Afghanistan may be difficult and sordid but it is not hopeless. Afghan women have been experiencing such difficulties for many years but hopelessness has never been and will never be an option. Let me share with you some of the actions that could be pursued to improve the situation of rural women.
First, we need to make sure that rural women are kept in the loop of all development initiatives. Whether in policy making, program development, budgeting, monitoring, or advocacy, rural women need to be informed. All national NGOs should include rural women in their priority partners and beneficiaries and rural women leaders need to be supported to proactively work for the inclusion of their respective associations in national networks. Communication systems – whether radio, traditional informal messaging linkages, social media and information and communication technologies – should be harnessed to the fullest to ensure that the right of rural women to information is promoted. We should fight for access to information and communication technology for rural women because the conversations going on within the information media is a new world where we could draw social support, learn new things, and bridge solidarity with women and male supporters of gender equality worldwide.
Second, we need to enable rural women to make a claim on budgets for rural communities. Our rural women leaders should inquire about what rural development programs are being implemented in their areas, how much funding are allocated for such programs, and how they will benefit women. We need to hold them accountable on how public funds for the development of rural communities would be spent because within the context of such programs, the benefits to rural women should be clearly spelled out. These projects should provide rural women with equal access to opportunities such as employment, training, and better infrastructures and services.
Third, we should continue to work for the enhancement of our rural women’s leadership and alliances to build confidence, strengthen mutual support and develop advocacy and public speaking skills to influence rural development processes and decision making. We should rally behind our rural women leaders so that they could get a seat in the most important decision making posts – in community, district, municipal or provincial councils; in organizations; in local media; in multi-organization networks; in political parties; and in any influential position we could get them appointed or elected. We should stop the game of competing among ourselves and learn to consolidate women’s votes and political support for those who truly champion our interests; women and men alike. This is what being in a democracy is all about: using the power of solidarity to overcome our marginalization and powerless status in public life. Our leaders should speak about rural development projects that bring negative impacts on the livelihood, mobility or social activities of rural women. This is not something that we should be afraid or ashamed to do. It is our right to ensure that rural development programs do not marginalize women or create negative impacts on them. It is also our right to demand that we be consulted on matters that affect our life. So, whenever there are projects that are being planned in our communities, we need to assert our right to be involved in the planning, decision making and implementation of those projects.
Fourth, we need to press for policies and programs that address the most vulnerable among rural women such as the widows, female heads of households, victims of armed conflict and violence, physically-impaired, the unattached elderlies, and girl children and adolescents. For widows and female household heads, State assistance in the form of food and financial support should be made available. For victims of armed conflict, we should fight for restitution to compensate women who were raped during the war, or who became physically impaired. And for unattached elderlies and vulnerable girl children and adolescents, the full protection and support of the State must be extended.
If you already have these programs in Pakistan, I urge you to join us in breaking the silence about the small, inadequate, and irregular dole outs being given by government to these groups of rural women and fight for an international policy that would prescribe a minimum baseline on the quantity and quality of State support to them. Part of such support should be a full educational package for a bachelor’s degree for at least one member of their family, preferably a female. We have our South Asian networks which we could utilize as vehicles for this advocacy.
Fifth, whether we like it or not, we are the main producers of knowledge about our own situation. We should therefore intensify our effort to bring together, analyze and document our experiences in a way that could be useful to policy and decision making at the local, national, regional and international levels. There are many organizations out there that thirst for organic information produced by women themselves. There are also many researchers in universities that are looking for subjects of thesis and academic studies on the lives of rural women. We can offer to them a study of our collective analysis about national issues and the happenings in the rural communities where we live. The more our collective ideas are documented, the greater is our chance to be heard and noticed in the circle of policy making and allocation of resources.
Sisters and fellow activists, before I close, I wish to leave with you a very inspiring piece of news. Last month, the World Happiness Report declared Denmark as the happiest country in the world, citing six reasons for being so. These are: (a) the State support to parents; (b) recognition of health as a civil right and a source of social support; (c) biking as the norm for transportation; (d) putting a positive spin in its harsh environment; (e) a feeling of responsibility to one another; and (f) the priority it gives to gender equality.
Denmark regularly ranks among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of gender equality. Its political parties introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s which resulted in high numbers of political representatives, so much so, that the quota has already been abandoned because there is no more need for it. In Denmark, gender equality is not just an individual aspiration but a part of the society’s vision.
I am sharing this news to you because it proves two things: first, that gender equality is attainable and there is already a country that could demonstrate to the world how it could be done; and second, the example of Denmark shows that gender equality is a requirement to attain national happiness. Gender equality is a development goal that must be pursued, not only as a matter of human right for women, but as an essential ingredient of a people-centered development.
It may not happen within our lifetime, but it will happen. So, I urge all of you to carry on. Thank you very much for your attention, and happy celebration of International Rural Women’s Day!”