Women’s Day message: Don’t sacrifice Afghan women


Bringing the war in Afghanistan to a responsible end is important, but it must not include sacrificing gains in women’s human rights.  That was the theme of Professor David Cortright’s speech at a Humphrey School of Public Affairs event honoring International Women’s Day on Friday evening, March 9, sponsored by local women’s and human rights groups.  Director of Policy Studies at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Cortright opened his speech by stating “advocacy for women’s rights is not just for women, it’s for men too.” 

Last October in Kabul, he interviewed more than fifty policy makers and activist women, and discovered that while women have made many gains as a result of donor aid programs such as those of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the current war is not popular among Afghan women.  They, like Afghan men, see the foreigners as an occupying army.  For centuries Afghanistan has resisted occupation.  Particularly insulting, he said, is the military’s kicking open of doors of homes in the search for Taliban insurgents.  That simply makes more recruits for the opposition, Kroc said.      

Yet the gains for women have been significant.  Under the Taliban regime, education of girls was banned and only about 9000 boys attended school. Today, thanks to development aid, about seven million children are in primary school, 37 percent of them girls.  Ten years ago, maternal mortality in Afghanistan was highest in the world; today it is less than two percent, thanks partially to the more than 3,000 newly-trained midwives.  Still, overall life expectancy is only 46 years.    

Under Afghanistan’s constitution, women are allowed to vote and hold office.  With a quota system in which a percentage of parliamentary seats must go to women, Kroc characterized women’s participation as “shallow,” because too many of the women are beholden to powerful warlords for their election. Still, he warned that development aid should not be slashed.  In supporting education, health care and the formation the local community development councils in which women are active, development aid has been most effective.  

“This is not a war to be won by military means,” Kroc said, lauding President Obama for the projected withdrawal of military forces.  Instead, the insurgents must be convinced to join a peace process.  Suspending combat operations is important, for civilians are the biggest casualties with most killed by insurgents. Since the Taliban now controls much of the country, in any negotiated solution it must share power.  Yet women’s rights must not be surrendered and development aid must be continued. 

Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China and other surrounding countries must also be involved in any peace-keeping effort, Kroc argued.  An international peace-keeping force is needed and, to be acceptable to the Taliban, it should be Muslim-led with U.N. support.  With the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, making travel outside Kabul impossible without armed guards, Kroc believes a peace-keeping force is critical, and only possible after cessation of hostilities.

Fifth District Congressmember Keith Ellison and Robin Phillips, director of Advocates for Human Rights, commentators on Kroc’s presentation, agreed. After being in Afghanistan at least three times, Ellison said the United States should get out militarily but not “abandon Afghanistan.” Do not succumb, as many do, to thinking foreign aid cuts will make much difference in our budget deficit, Ellison warned, since that aid is less than one percent of our GDP and desperately needed by Afghanistan.

That country is one of the poorest in the world, with most of its populace illiterate, Ellison noted, while describing his surprise at seeing great numbers of women as part of a jail’s population.  They were there for protection.  Most had flouted tribal law by refusing to marry men their male relatives had bound them to.  Punishments under tribal law can be horrific, even deadly, as worldwide news reports have shown.   Ellison also urged understanding of the pressures American military forces serve under in this war, but no condoning of egregious acts; the rule of law must be upheld. 

Robin Phillips cautioned the audience to be realistic, while maintaining  respect for human rights.  She termed non-negotiable the right to choose whom to marry and the number of children to bear. “Protecting cultural rights does not mean protecting that which hurts individuals,” she said, while encouraging the audience to pay attention to what’s going on in the world, to be loud about women’s human rights, and to make sure that denying women their rights has political consequences. 

Cortright’s full report, Afghan Women Speak:  Enhancing Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan, co-authored with Sarah Smiles Persinger,  is available on the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for Peace Studies website. 


Arvonne Fraser is a senior fellow emerita, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.  Kate Fraser is her grand-daughter, a student at Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis, who took extensive notes on the program.