How Not to Empower Women in Afghanistan

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s $416 million, five-year program to boost women’s leadership runs the risk of being irrelevant in a country where, just last month, a woman was beaten to death by a mob of men in broad daylight for allegedly burning a Quran. In a video taken by an onlooker, a man is seen taking a concrete block to smash her head. Her body was then set on fire and thrown into a river.

The issue is not just the legitimate concerns over the difficulties of implementing, monitoring and assessing the impact of the program amidst a NATO pullout, as the inspector general of the government watchdog on Afghanistan reconstruction pointed out.

It’s as though the creators of this largest ever U.S. government gender program haven’t read any chapter in the book of blunder that’s the Afghan nation-building, written over 13 years with a running tab of more than $100 billion. It’s a story of contracting and subcontracting out of projects, lack of accountability, squandering of funds and corruption.

The program – “Promote” – immediately smacks of previous initiatives that aimed at bringing about quick impact but no lasting change. There are the usual suspects of contractors, missing paper work and work plans. USAID is funding $216 million of the total commitment; it’s not clear who will chip in the rest.

When the inspector general asked last year for evidence showing earlier programs’ impact on improving Afghan women’s lives, USAID was unable to provide any data directly linking the two. But no problem, the new initiative will empower 75,000 women to help them become leaders in politics, business and civil society alongside their male counterparts.

Promote has scores of output indicators, such as training “18,000 women” in management and leadership skills and “7,000 women” in life skills. It will make “75 percent reform” in government institutions to protect women’s rights at work.” “5,000 activists” from the provinces will join gender coalitions.

The viability of achieving these objectives aside – and understanding what that actually means on the ground – presenting a wish list as a fact sheet undermines the agency’s effort to run a serious gender program. Moreover, throwing in numbers doesn’t ensure that a program will be managed for results.

In Afghanistan, women and their children are considered property of male heads of households. This deeply entrenched tribal, conservative attitude toward women is one of the root causes of problems.

Violence against women is pandemic with 90 percent of women experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence. A 2009 presidential decree declared rape a crime and banned violence against women, but seeking legal recourse is not culturally acceptable. More than a quarter of the country’s parliamentarians are women, outnumbering America’s 18 percent, but that hasn’t protected women’s rights activists or female parliamentarians from terrorist attacks.

For a woman in Afghanistan, I imagine improved security and a change in culture would be more urgent than leadership development.

Educating men is an essential part of empowering women, and it’s fortunate that this new initiative aims to do this. Unfortunately, it aims to have “30 percent increase” in men’s positive attitude toward women. It’s not clear how this will be done or how the boost in positive attitude will be measured.

Whoever came up with the 30 percent didn’t take into consideration the cultural and regional variations, and that educating men – of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek ethnic groups, among others – along with women, would require time, certainly more than the program’s five-year lifespan.

It’s as though we have learned nothing from working in the country for the past 13 years.

Among all the Afghan aid initiatives the world invested in the country, the one that stands out is a rural development scheme called the National Solidarity Program. The ministry of rural development administers it and local communities implement it. It has enabled villagers to build small-scale infrastructure projects across over 90 percent of the country’s 398 districts in all 34 provinces. With over $1 billion spent, it is the single largest and successful development program. And it doesn’t require outside inspection or foreign troops for protection because Afghans are in charge of implementing and monitoring it.

It also mandates that women be included in the locally elected project leaders, which has led to higher women’s involvement in the community and income generation, according to a World Bank researcher and his colleagues. They also found that men in villages that participated in the program were 40 percent less likely to object to women playing a role in village decision making.

It means community-based development programs could be an effective intervention to fight gender stereotypes. And for one, these don’t need international contractors that require security and high overhead cost.

I’m not saying Promote is doomed. Undoubtedly, women in Afghanistan are better off today than they were in 2001, thanks to the U.S. and international donors’ investments. It’s also an unequivocal expression of the American commitment to not abandon the women of Afghanistan. It sets an example for any donors thinking about cutting off aid altogether because of the shrinking operational reach.

But that doesn’t mean it has to pour money into the country. The sensible thing to do is to be smart about where and how to give assistance to help Afghan women. Thirteen years of experience has to inform on how aid is given – to stop wasteful practices and double down on schemes that show results.

Afghanistan needs all the help it can get, but a meaningful change requires time. And it has to come from within.

This article first appeared in Cicero Magazine, April 8, 2015.

(Photo Credit: Eric Kanalstein/United Nations via Creative Commons.)