by Devin Cowick, Mina’s List Executive Assistant
On the surface, the recent attack on Afghan Parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai appears to be another in a long list of violent extremist activities. Upon further reflection however, the attack seems indicative of a more encouraging phenomenon: the rise of Afghan women in the public sphere. Parliamentarian Barakzai is one of an increasing number of women who have ascended to political leadership positions and are leading the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Since the US military removed the Taliban from power thirteen years ago, Afghan women have won more access to public life through education, healthcare, employment, and politics. Almost 3 million girls are in school and more than 16,000 women have graduated. Equally impressive is the fact that women now fill more than a quarter of parliament seats and have joined the ranks of police and military forces. Under an increasingly inclusive parliament, Afghanistan signed bilateral security agreements with the US and NATO, and even passed its own National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan.
Yet gender equality in Afghanistan is by no means a certain outcome, as illustrated by the recent attack on Ms. Barakzai. Though no longer in power, the Taliban continue to exert influence in Afghanistan and remain a violent and destructive force in the country. It is crucial that we support Afghan women leaders to further their cause and prevent the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups from reversing their hard-earned progress. With more women in parliament, the Afghan government is more likely to promote the rights of women and girls, and has already begun to do so. Afghan women still have a long way to go in achieving equal representation in national government, and they need our help. This is where Mina’s List comes in.
As is the case all around the world, women in Afghanistan face a number of unique challenges to attaining political office. With our pilot program in Afghanistan, Mina’s List will offer Afghan women the tools and resources they need to address such challenges, including running a campaign under the anonymity of a burqa. We plan to help women in Afghanistan overcome obstacles to political empowerment by providing them with culturally relevant educational resources, training, and mentorship through in-country women’s organizations. Mina’s List has already established partnerships with grassroots women’s organizations in Afghanistan, such as the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) and Afghan Women’s Education Center (AWEC).
The argument that deep-rooted cultural and religious beliefs in Afghanistan will not allow for women’s progress is clearly no longer valid. In fact, women experienced improvement in their status as early as the 1920’s, when King Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya worked to open schools for girls and abolish child marriages. Even today women continue to make enormous strides in the fight for their rights. An upward trend in the number of Afghan women political leaders has tremendous implications for Afghanistan, as well as the international community as a whole. Research shows that when women are empowered as political leaders, countries experience higher standards of living and tangible gains in democratic governance. In other words, more women in national government will lead to a more stable Afghanistan, which will in turn lead to greater international security.
The women of Afghanistan have reached a precipice. In this crucial time in the region, we must protect and empower these women who have already accomplished so much.