Difference between revisions of "Gender Equality in Afghanistan"

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*[http://www.fao.org/gender/landrights/ Gender and Land Rights Database]<br>
*[http://www.fao.org/gender/landrights/ Gender and Land Rights Database]<br>

Revision as of 15:01, 19 July 2011

Flag of Afghanistan
Population (in Mil.) 29.73
Gross Domestic Product (In USD Billions - WB) 20.54
Sex Ratio (m/f) 1.03
Life Expectancy Ratio (f/m) 1.033898305
Fertility Rate 5.39
Estimated Earned Income (f/m)
Tertiary Enrolment Ratio (f/m) 3.3
Women in Parliament (in %) 27.7
Human Development Index 175/187
Social Institutions and Gender Index 69/86
Gender Inequality Index 175/186
Gender Equity Index 154/168
Women’s Economic Opportunity Index /128
Global Gender Gap Index /68
More information on variables



Women are offered very little protection under the law and certain legislation actually undermines women’s security. When President Karzai came into power claiming that he was moderate on women’s issues, there was hope that reforms would be made to protect women. But a bill passed on July 27th, 2009 contained repressive measures specifically for Shia families (10-20% of the population) that not only continued to strip away women’s liberties, but also contradicted the Afghan constitution and international treaties signed by the country. Some of the law’s provisions include the ability for rapists to avoid prosecution if they pay money to the victim’s family, husbands to not give their wives food and water if they refuse his sexual demands, that the sole custody of children is granted to their fathers and grandfathers and that women must receive permission from their husbands if they want to work.[1] While not explicitly stated in penal code, women that have had sexual relations before being married (even if they were raped) or are thought to have committed adultery, face severe consequences including significant jail time or even death.


Along with the lack of sufficient Education for women, employment also poses a significant problem for women in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule (1996-2001), women were allowed to set up businesses from their homes, but had severe limitations on their ability to work in public places. Women were permitted to work in medical positions, but they could only treat female patients. Furthermore, women with children were not allowed to work at all.[2]

Since the fall of the Taliban, many women have tried to get back their former jobs as teachers, civil servants and doctors, but while Article 48 of the constitution stipulates that every Afghan has the right to work, the government has done little to help women access the labor market or to develop professional skills.[3] Despite that, the All Afghan Women’s Union has since provided professional training for about 10,000 women entrepreneurs and Microfinance Times claims that about 75% of microcredit borrowers in Afghanistan are women.[2] Women have opened their own small businesses in order to help support their families. The Afghan Women Judges Association has also worked to increase the number of female judges and lawyers (currently about 50 active female judges) in the country and to provide legal advice for vulnerable Afghan women.[2]

Despite these advances, many obstacles remain for women who want to join the labor market. Low literacy rates and poor education contribute to high unemployment levels for women. More importantly, traditional values are frequently evoked to keep women from working. Widespread disagreement about whether women should be able to work outside of the home and if they should be allowed to work in an office with other men has kept women out of most positions. And even for those that have businesses at home, they are still vulnerable to their husbands or other male family members taking control of their profits.


Under the Taliban rule from 1996-2001, girls were banned from education and women were not allowed to partake in outdoor activities. Girls were being obstructed from receiving a proper education due to systematic attacks on girls schools, particularly in rural areas, by the Taliban and other insurgents. With the new constitution, these restrictions were lifted. But attacks on schools continue. In 2010, UNICEF reports that in the 500+ attacks on schools throughout the year (not just girls’ schools), 167 students and school employees were killed and 527 wounded.[4] Female students and teachers have also been directly attacked by militants- some having been doused by acid and others shot directly.[5] UNICEF reports that the youth literacy rate for women aged 15-24 between 2004 and 2008 was only at 18%.[6]

But with new efforts by international organizations and foreign countries to negotiate with the Taliban, progress might be in the works. In the beginning of 2011, the Afghanistan Ministry of Education reported that Taliban leaders had informed elders in rural regions that girls could now attend separate schools as long as they and the female teachers wore the hijab and that the curriculum respected cultural and religious values. Schools have since been reopened and Najibullah Ahmadi, the director of education for the Kandahar Province, claims that thousands of girls have since enrolled.[4] Even if the Taliban respects this commitment, the country still has to face other problems: lack of funding to reopen schools, shortage of female teachers, ensuring security and shifting traditional parental views towards educating girls.

Political Empowerment

Since 2005, a push has been made to encourage women to take part in national politics due to pressure from the United Nations and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. In the directly elected lower house of the National Assembly, 68 of the 249 seats are reserved for women in the House of the People (Wolesi Jirga). In the upper house, provisions for women’s representation have also been made.[7] Unfortunately, pressure from warlords in rural areas and a traditional patriarchal culture frequently dissuade women, psychologically and physically, from running in elections. Faced with a traditional society that favors clan solidarity over gender equality, many women side with their families even when their rights are not respected within the family.[8] Furthermore, the extremely high percentage of female illiteracy (87%) has often been cited as one of the main reasons that female participation in the country’s 80 registered political parties remains low. Despite the obstacles, 40% of the 8 million Afghans who voted in the October 2004 presidential poll were women.[9] In the 2010 parliamentary elections, women accounted for roughly 16% of the candidates and 41% of the registered voters. Overall, 69 women were elected to the parliament. There were also two women presidential candidates for the 39 male candidates although female participation was inhibited by threats and religious restrictions on appearing in public and travelling alone.[7]

Social Institutions

Afghan women are among the most vulnerable in the world. Under the Taliban regime, women and girls were systematically discriminated against and marginalized, and their human rights were violated. Women did not have a role in the political process and were excluded from all forms of formal or informal governance. In addition, their access to education, health care facilities and employment was severely restricted. After the overthrow of the Taliban in November 2001 many hoped that women in Afghanistan would rapidly regain their human rights, but the continuing threat to women’s security still makes their participation in public life almost impossible. While Islamic law protects women’s interest in principle, Afghan customary law remains discriminatory.

Family Code

Marriage is a community affair in Afghanistan and forced Early marriage is common - an estimated 57 % of girls are married before the age of 16 (Human Rights Watch, 2004). Many Afghan people have arranged marriages, decided by their parents or elder male family members. Arranged marriage is sometimes considered Forced marriage (when one party is forced to marry against its will), although it is not always the case. In remote areas, the arrangement may be seen as positive due to the limited access of young people to potential partners.

The Afghan constitution, as well as Islamic law, allows for polygamy and a man can have up to four wives simultaneously. While certain conditions apply to multiple marriages, such as the equal treatment of spouses, these are not always observed in practice. As the social prestige of a divorced woman is very low, a woman is more likely to agree to be a second or third wife than a divorcee, even if she is treated unfairly by her husband (Max Planck Institute, 2005).

Under Islamic law, provisions on parental authority hold a father as the natural guardian of his children and their belongings. A child’s paternal grandfather is his or her natural guardian after the father. In the case of divorce, a mother is usually granted physical - not legal - custody of her child until the child reaches the age of custodial transfer. The child is then returned to the physical custody of the father or the father’s family (Uhlman, 2004). Inheritance practices are treated differently under Islamic and customary laws. Under Islamic law, a woman may inherit from her parents, her husband, her children and - under certain conditions - from other members of her family. A man, however, is entitled greater shares of inheritance than a woman. For example, a daughter receives only half of what her brother inherits upon the death of their parents. This is commonly justified by the fact that a woman has no financial responsibility towards her husband and children. Under customary law, women are taken care of by their family but they don’t inherit from their fathers or husbands. If her husband dies, a widow will remain in her family-in-law. If she is young, she is often encouraged to marry her brother-in-law in order to be able to take care of her children. Because of the long lasting civil war, there are nowadays 1.5 millions Afghan widows.

Physical Integrity

Female genital mutilation is not practiced in Afghanistan.

Violence against women is widely tolerated and practiced in the Afghan community. There are four main factors that underlie women’s vulnerability: (i) the traditional patriarchal gender order; (ii) the erosion of protective social mechanisms; (iii) the lack of the rule of law; and (iv) poverty and insecurity in the country following years of conflict (UN Economic and Social Council, 2006). Abusers are rarely prosecuted and the authorities seldom investigate complaints about violent attacks, rape, murders or suicides of women. Women who report rape face incarceration and may be accused of “zina” (i.e. sexual relations outside marriage, which is illegal). Nevertheless, the need to combat violence against women is gaining ground and support in Afghanistan. Victims of family violence, mainly from urban areas, have started to assert their rights -- notably to divorce -- and have contributed to bringing the issue of the protection of women to national attention.

The occurrence of missing women (including female infants and children) is widespread in most South Asian countries, and particularly severe in Afghanistan. The country has the world’s highest percentage of missing women relative to its total female population. Census data show that over 1.1 million Afghan women were missing in 2001 (Hudson et al, 2005). This is primarily the result of female sex-selective abortions, or through relative neglect compared to boys in early childhood (including abandonment).

Civil Liberties

The Taliban's policies severely limited women's freedom of movement. Women could not leave their households nor travel unless accompanied by a male relative, which put a particular strain on female-headed households and widows. In May 2001, a decree was issued by the Taliban, banning women from driving cars, which further limited their activities. While conditions have improved since the fall of the Taliban, real change has been limited due to continuing security threats.

The current government imposes no legal restrictions on women’s freedom of dress. Following deeply rooted traditions of purdah, however, most women cover themselves from head to toe, wearing the typical burkha. Women who go unveiled in public run the risk of being verbally or physically harassed.

Ownership Rights

While many women work in the agriculture sector, few actually own land of their own. Women are most likely to gain access to land through inheritance.

Women’s access to bank loans has been limited. Most Afghans, in general, are too poor to provide collateral for a loan. Since the fall of the Taliban, however, microfinance institutions have been set up in the country with the help of foreign aid. Women clients use the money to set up small businesses in a variety of areas, from weaving and knitting to carpentry and animal husbandry.

While Islamic law protects a woman’s access to property, customary law traditionally deprives a woman of economic assets and she is often dependant on her husband, father or brother (if she is not married) throughout her life.

In the news

See Also


  1. Human Rights Watch: “Afghanistan: Law Curbing Women’s Rights Takes Effect,” on August 13, 2009
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 PBS Wide Angle: “Flying Down to Kabul Women in Afghanistan: Employment,” August 1, 2006
  3. The Asia Foundation: Najla Ayubi, “Women’s Biggest Problems in Afghanistan”, January 27, 2010
  4. 4.0 4.1 IRIN Analysis: “Girls’ education in Afghanistan - a new beginning?,” February 17, 2011
  5. “Arrests after Afghan acid attack,” www.bbc.co.uk, November 25, 2008
  6. UNICEF Statistics: Afghanistan
  7. 7.0 7.1 Freedom House Country Report: Afghanistan, 2010
  8. Nushin Arbabzadah, “Afghan women remain wary of politics – and rightly so,” in www.bbc.co.uk, on March 9, 2011
  9. IRIN News: “AFGHANISTAN: Getting more women into politics,” March 2, 2005


  • Amnesty International (2005), Afghanistan: Women still under attack – a systematic failure to protect, AI Index: ASA 11/007/2005.
  • Uhlman K, (2004), Overview of Shari’a and Prevalent Customs in Islamic Societies - Divorce and Child Custody, Expert Law.
  • Grace, Jo (2005), Who Owns the Farm? Rural Women’s Access to Land and Livestock, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit Working Paper Series.
  • Hudson, V. and A. Den Boer, Missing Women and Bare Branches: Gender Balance and Conflict, ECSP Report, Issue 11, 2005.
  • Human Rights Watch, The Status of Women in Afghanistan, October 2004.
  • Klasen, K. and C. Wink (2003), “Missing Women”: Revisiting the Debate, Feminist Economics 1/2003, Volume 9, Issue 2-3.
  • Max Planck Institute for Foreign Private Law and Private International Law (2005), Family Structures and Family Law in Afghanistan: A Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Afghanistan January-March 2005.
  • Microfinance Times (2005), Addressing the Needs of Afghanistan’s Poor and Developing a Sustainable Microfinance Sector, Issue 3, Volume 1, December 2005.
  • OECD (2006), The Gender, Institutions and Development Database.
  • UN Economic and Social Council (2006), Integration of the Human Rights of Women and a Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Ertürk, E/CN.4/2006/61/Add.5.
  • UN Economic and Social Council (2002), Discrimination against women and girls in Afghanistan, Report of the Secretary General, E/CN.6/2002/5.
  • UNICEF (2005), Country Programme Evaluation: Government of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan / UNICEF (2003-2005).


The FAO Gender and Land Rights Database

FAO logo.jpg

The FAO Gender and Land Rights Database contains country level information on social, economic, political and cultural issues related to the gender inequalities embedded in those rights. Disparity on land access is one of the major causes for social and gender inequalities in rural areas, and it jeopardizes, as a consequence, rural food security as well as the wellbeing of individuals and families.

Six categories

The Database offers information on the 6 following Categories:

  • National legal frame
  • International treaties and conventions
  • Customary law 
  • Land tenure and related Institutions
  • Civil society organizations
  • Selected Land Related Statistics

For detailed information on Afghanistan, please visit the report on Afghanistan in the FAO Gender and Land Rights Database.


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