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Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan

Position Statement - What Needs To Happen (2017)

1. What is the current situation for women in Afghanistan? Have things improved?

The answer here is a resounding yes. In fact, the changes in Afghanistan have been dramatic. We highlight a small sample here:

  • More children are enrolled in schools today than at any previous time in Afghanistan’s history. Net attendance of primary school was found to be 55% by UNICEF in 2012 and 56.8% by the NRVA in 2012;

  • The average number of years of schooling has increased from 2.5 to 8.1 in the last 10 years, according to the NRVA.

  • There was one operational teachers’ college in 2001; today there are over 40.

  • In 2001 it was estimated by UNICEF that Afghanistan had about 3,600 schools. In 2016, the Ministry of Education reported operating 16,400 public schools. This is in addition to hundreds of private schools and NGO-run schools (known as Community Based Education, or CBE). About half of households (53.9% for boys’ schools and 48.1% for girls’ schools) live within two kilometers of a school.

  • There are around 200,000 teachers, of whom 33.3% are female (2015), and in 2016 teachers created their first elected group of representatives, the National Teachers Elected Council.

  • Afghanistan's maternal mortality was estimated for the period 1999-2002 to be between 1,600 and 2,200 (mothers who died of pregnancy related causes per 100,000 live births), and in 2010 the Afghanistan Mortality Survey found it had dropped to 329 per 100,000 births;

  • An effective national midwifery program has saved thousands of women’s and babies’ lives;

  • Life expectancy has increased by 10 years, being 60.5 as of 2015 according to the World Health Organization ( 59.3 for males and 61.9 for females);

  • Child mortality has decreased by half;

  • At least 60% of the population has access to health services, as of 2014.

  • 40% of Afghanistan live somewhere with access to the Internet and 11.2% have personal access to the Internet (2016);

  • GDP per capita has more than doubled, and in 2016 was growing by 2.2% with projected growth for 2017 at 2.6% and 3.6% by 2020;

  • Afghanistan has demonstrated strong growth in the agricultural sector in particular, exporting its world famous pomegranates, saffron, almonds, grapes and more;

  • Over 90% of Afghans have mobile phones (2016);

  • Afghanistan’s media sector is often touted as the most free in the surrounding region, with a thriving independent media community that counts hundreds of television stations, news agencies, 174 radio stations, and newspapers and magazines, many of which have an active social media presence. Afghan journalists have won accolades around the world for their reporting, and there’s an increasing number of women journalists working in the sector, as well as women’s media including a women’s TV station, several women’s radio stations, and women’s magazines like this one;

  • 28% of Afghanistan’s parliamentary seats are held by women.

  • In contrast to the authoritarian theocracy of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s representative government is gradually growing, today having provincial councils in its 34 provinces, and the first municipal councils.  

This is truly transformative change in a short period of time, and especially considering this development has occurred amidst an active violent conflict. Occasionally, we have seen politically charged headlines in some ideologically driven media claiming that Afghanistan has not changed, or that its situation has even worsened since it was under the rule of the Taliban. This is unequivocally untrue. The war in Afghanistan continues to dominate headlines, and it may be easy to get the impression that the situation is hopeless, but it is anything but. We are inspired every day by the change we have witnessed in Afghanistan in the two decades of our work there so far.

Despite this progress, many challenges remain. There is much work to do in the education sector, where the first national reading tests carried out have shown poor outcomes. This tells us that it’s not enough to have schools built, teachers hired and textbooks distributed: the quality of education, and the learning taking place in schools, is the ultimate measure of success for the education sector. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education’s latest National Education Strategic Plan, NESP III, has a strong emphasis in shifting focus to quality, and we will be endeavouring to align all of our programming with the goals of the NESP III. There is also much work to be done to end violence against women in Afghanistan - see the next question.

2. There are a lot of stories about violence against women (VAW) in Afghanistan. Is VAW increasing?

Violence against women (VAW) in Afghanistan is not increasing since the end of the Taliban regime in late 2001. However, statistical reporting and media coverage of VAW in Afghanistan is increasing. This situation is described by Lauryn Oates in 2014:

Yet it is only since the last few years that this human rights crisis has been properly exposed, with civil society mobilized to address it, the Afghan media regularly reporting abuses, and the issue becoming less taboo. In 2001, there was not a single women's shelter operational in the country. Today there are over a dozen, among other services like legal aid, counseling, and medical treatment for survivors of violence.

There is now legislation that criminalizes violence against women, and an unsatisfactorily slow but steady increase in enforcement, as registered by comparative studies by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013.

And importantly, cases of violence are being reported and recorded for the first time ever. Prior to 2008 Afghanistan did not collect statistics on violence against women. Its data systems are still evolving, and the vast majority of cases go unreported. But each year, there is a rise in reporting. This is not the same thing as a rise in incidence. This is a distinction that makes the difference between an assessment of regress versus an assessment of progress.

Organizations like Women for Afghan Women and our partner, Medica Afghanistan, have been working hard to offer legal aid, counselling, shelter, education and other services to female survivors of abuse. There’s a long way to go: Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman, and every month we learn of cases of femicide and of horrific abuse, and sometimes of honour killings. Some initial research such as this study has attempted to quantify the problem, and this research tells us that violence against women is so widespread as to be endemic. Ending VAW will require a systemic, long-term, forceful and consistent plan of action involving the Afghan Government, civil society and the Afghan women’s movement, and support from the international community. Similar to the trajectory of other countries seeking to eradicate VAW, the work has begun, with the opening of the first shelters for women fleeing abuse, advocacy by Afghan women, and demands for legal reform to criminalize abuse and protect women


3. What is the security situation like? How are you able to work effectively if there is a war?

There is no doubt that Afghanistan represents one of the world’s longest running conflicts. And in fact the “Afghan conflict” is not only a conflict involving Afghanistan. Terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, which planned 9/11 from within Afghanistan, are multinational, and the Taliban are headquartered in neighbouring Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan is very much a regional conflict, and one with global implications. It is for this reason, that more than 50 countries (of which 28 were NATO member countries) united to contribute troops to the UN-mandated International Assistance Force, or ISAF (UN Security Council Resolutions 1386, 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1659, 1707, 1776 and 1917), which was active from 2001 until 2014. Today, NATO runs a non-combat mission in Afghanistan to develop the capacity of Afghan security forces and institutions, called Resolute Support. This mission, which started January 2015, maintains approximately 13,000 international troops in Afghanistan contributed by 39 countries ranging from Romania and Iceland to Mongolia and Armenia, and is mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2189.

In 2011 during a conference in Bonn with the Afghan Government, the international community pledged that 2015-2024 would be the “decade of transformation” in Afghanistan. This pledge recognized the need to bring security as well as development and the end of poverty, and to focus on good governance and tackling corruption -- co-dependant objectives. There will be no peace without security, and no security without development. While development workers and those trying to deliver humanitarian aid in Afghanistan face very real danger working amidst an active conflict, the world cannot afford to wait for a safer environment in which to deliver development assistance. In fact, underdevelopment is helping drive the conflict, so peacebuilding efforts are intertwined with the country’s development ambitions. Further, there is growing evidence of the link between instability and conflict, with the poor status of women. Fighting for the rights of Afghan women and girls will also contribute to peacebuilding in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a dangerous place -- there is no denying this reality. Every day our staff make decisions to balance the need to reach people who are thirsty for education and change in their lives, with the need to keep our team safe. We are part of a community of non-governmental organizations working in Afghanistan that constantly monitor and adjust the implementation of activities continuously in response to an ever evolving situation. We have measures in place at all levels of our operations to mitigate risks, and we monitor security data daily. Unfortunately, there have been instances where we were unable to operate in a community that requested our presence because the risk was too high to work there. There have been been a very small number of cases where we have interrupted activities due to security threats, either relocating them or resuming later when circumstances changed. Generally, though, by being attentive to security dynamics, building relationships of trust with communities, becoming knowledgeable about the environment we work in, and adapting protocols in response to changing conditions, we are able to run long-term programs without incident.

In conclusion, we recognize the threats we face in Afghanistan, we work to mitigate the risks, and to stay and deliver. Our ethos can be summed up by the words spoken by our programs director at our AGM in Banff in 2015:

Whether things are going good or bad in the tough places of the world is beside the point. The circumstances on the ground don’t negate the necessity of action. Asking if things are getting better or worse in Afghanistan is the wrong question. Because the answer to that question can’t be the measure by which we decide whether to keep investing in girls like this or not. The measure must be, simply, because it is the right thing to do, and we can do it, so we should. It’s been said, “A ship is safe in harbor, ….. but that’s not what ships are for.” (John A. Shedd) So while things are getting better in Afghanistan, despite everything, let our actions and commitment not hinge on that, but on the knowledge that in every society under assault, there are thinking people resisting. And they need us with them, on their side, even with the rough gets going. Especially when the rough gets going.


4. So is CW4WAfghan having an impact?

Definitely. Our motivation to remain working in Afghanistan comes from the change we see happening all of the time, both within our programs as well as in the broader society. In every project, we monitor whether we are reaching our target results by collecting a variety of information to measure change. For example, in a literacy class, we assess students before and after they complete the course to measure gains in literacy, as well as assessment throughout. We monitor the quality of teaching, student and teacher attendance, how many, how often and which books are being signed out of the class library, and we evaluate the learning of teachers when they take a professional development workshop intended to increase their skills in teaching literacy or managing a small classroom library. CW4WAfghan employs a full-time Monitoring & Evaluation Officer in Kabul who visits all project sites and is responsible for ensuring this kind of information is collected, entered into a database and analyzed. CW4WAfghan’s project management team then use the information to make decisions about project activities, and how to support field staff to ensure targets are met. You can read about the specific impacts we have achieved project by project in our annual impact reports.

Some of the practices we embrace that we think have helped us make a difference in the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan include:

  • Programs: While we do implement projects, those projects fit within larger programs and are aligned to the goals of those programs. Programs are typically multi-year, usually five years or longer. Successfully completed projects incrementally contribute to the goals of programs. The choice of programs and how we conceptualize them reflects careful thought and planning, considering, for example, priority needs and where we can make the greatest impact.

  • Long-term: Related to the above, we think that staying the course is important. It takes time to build trust with a community, and one project in a specific place often leads to another one as we get to know the place and the needs there. This allows us to build further on results achieved and to make use of knowledge and connections gained in a specific place, rather than jumping from place to place.

  • Specialization: CW4WAfghan focuses exclusively on education, and we have worked to build our expertise in specific subsectors of education including literacy education, libraries, teacher education, and technology for education. We think it’s better to go deep rather than wide, and to be really good at a few things instead of average at many things. We often work with partners that have cultivated other areas of expertise when we find a need within our programs for work that we have less experience with. These partnerships have greatly enriched our programs.

  • Accountability: we invest resources in tracking results systematically, as mentioned. We also have measures in place to deter corruption including our Anti-Corruption Policy, among other policies related to financial accountability. Each project also includes specific measures to prevent corruption. For example, teachers we hire always sign an addendum to their contract acknowledging our policy of 0 tolerance for the forging of information on documentation such as false attendance data, and our staff carry out unannounced site visits and spot checks regularly.

Social development is a long-term process. For this reason, we use the results-based management (RBM) division of results into three categories: outputs (short-term results); outcomes (medium-term results); and impacts (long-term results). An example of an output is the completion of a training program for teachers. But this merely means an activity was completed; it doesn’t guarantee that a change in practice, behaviour or attitude resulted. The outcome -- which will usually require other outputs to combine in order to achieve -- is an increase in knowledge and skill among the teachers that improves the quality of their teaching. The impact -- which may require numerous other outcomes to achieve, sometimes through multiple projects over a long period of time -- is improved learning outcomes among students. This may be reflected in higher graduation rates, better reading and math scores, demonstration of critical thinking and creativity, confidence, and resilience. That’s why a long-term programs approach anchored in specialization and that promotes accountability is important.

Here is a small sample of some of the outcomes and impacts we have seen from our work -- the accumulation of many outputs -- over the past two decades:

  • Thousands of teachers who confidently use active learning methods to engage students’ minds and motivate their learning;

  • Children, such as the girls in the Fatema tul Zahra School in Kabul, who are more likely to transition from primary to secondary school, and finish their basic education;

  • Hundreds of women who are functionally literate and who have pursued ambitious personal goals -- such as starting a small business -- because of the confidence they gained in their literacy class and the assistance they received with goal setting through the Personal Learning Plan tool CW4WAfghan developed for literacy students;

  • Mothers who have become literate who are now raising daughters who can read and write, and who attend school;

  • Nearly 250 schools that have well used libraries and science labs to promote hands-on learning and a love of reading;

  • Hundreds of teachers who are using local language learning materials to plan richer, more engaging lessons and to develop their own subject knowledge;

  • Dozens of girls who are completing or have completed their higher education thanks to the financial support of the Shafia Fund.


5. What needs to happen for things to improve further in Afghanistan?

a)  Focus on Quality Education and Accountability

Our decision to focus on education was not by accident. We fervently believe that education must be the priority of Afghanistan’s development agenda -- including its agenda for achieving peace in the long run. Much further investment in education must take place to see a faster pace of change. This does not just mean more financial resources, but rather, improving the overall system of education, the quality of learning and teaching, and the accountability for meeting the promises made to the Afghan people. As Julia Gillard wrote:

Good education systems are made up of a range of elements, including, for example, those that guide development (political and civic leaders); analyze data about progress (information analysis); deliver knowledge and sustenance (school administrators, teachers, books, and curricular materials); constantly seek ways to improve (innovations); ensure everyone is served (inclusion and equity); and keep it nourished (with financing and other resources).... If children have classrooms but no books, or teachers with a poor curriculum, their opportunities to learn are weakened. A systems approach focuses on getting the right resources to the right places with the right combination—and making sure, in particular, that those services reach the most disadvantaged and marginalized.

We applaud the priorities and content of the latest National Education Strategic Plan, NESP III, launched in late 2016. But it will take a lot of commitment, labour and will to put those plans into practice. In particular, the education sector must become more transparent, dismantling the systems that have enabled corruption to flourish. Afghan girls and boys, and their teachers, sometimes risk their lives to go to school. Families of limited means have made huge sacrifices to send children to school. They expect a brighter future for those children. The least they are owed is a more transparent, more accountable and better governed education system.

b) End Corruption and Improve Governance

Armed extremists like the Taliban are not the only predators of the Afghan people. Corruption is another foe that erodes good governance, dampens the legitimacy of the Afghan Government, and works against all of Afghanistan’s development objectives. It is imperative that corruption in the Afghan Government, including the education sector, and including in international aid flows, be tackled aggressively. This means not only doing away with impunity for those who engage in corruption and dismantling the systems that abet it, but also focusing on institution building - ensuring there are new systems that will fill the vacuum. A major driver of stability and development -- and ultimately of peace -- is democracy and good governance. That is why, in our view, Afghanistan’s development agenda must focus on improving the quality and transparency of government services, reducing corruption, and investing in representation and participation, including of women. In particular, strengthening the rule of law has a dramatic impact on women, as their rights get better protection.

c) Invest in Security and Peacebuilding

In terms of how the international community can support security in Afghanistan, we agree with these expert observers that international policy, in particular US policy, should be less concerned with quantitative benchmarks such as the numbers of troops in country and deadlines for withdrawals publicly announced in advance, than with measuring the extent to which Afghanistan has reached a point where it is more stable, more peaceful, and more developed. Without peace, stability and development, the cycle of war and the poverty and chaos that feeds it, will continue to repeat itself.

Terrorism, fuelled by violent religious extremism, has stolen lives around the world -- from New York, Madrid, London, Istanbul, to Paris -- but in Afghanistan, terrorism steals lives every day, shattering families and communities. We call for the Afghan Government and international forces to take measures that protect civilians from violence. But we also call for policy and resources to be invested in the prevention of terrorism and extremism, and this includes expanding equitable access to high quality public education that nurtures critical thinking and prepares citizens with 21st century skills. This includes reaching the most vulnerable, such as those who live in remote, insecure provinces, internally displaced people, female-headed households, and people living in extreme poverty.

Recent history has shown that terrorism finds its harbour in the most unstable, conflict-ridden corners of the world, including Osama bin Laden in Sudan and then Taliban-controlled Kandahar, the Islamic State in Syria, or the many terrorist groups now operating out of Yemen. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is in the interests of global security, and it will demand attention, good strategy and resources to both hard security objectives and to human security objectives including the education, health and welfare of Afghan women, men and children.

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan
PO Box 86016, Marda Loop, Calgary, Alberta
Canada T2T 6B7

t: 1 (403) 244-5625

Registered Charity #887718203RR0001

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