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A virtuous circle of peace, stability and prosperity will not be possible in Afghanistan if the large majority of women continue to be marginalized. A major concern of the international community in the post-2014 period is to ensure that some of the gains that women living in urban places have experienced since 9/11 are not reversed in Afghanistan.
Just as important — in a country where 75 to 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas — is to open opportunities for women in the rural sector where their rights have been largely neglected. But paying lip service to the gender issue is clearly not enough.
As I have argued, long before it became fashionable to say that women should be seen as agents for change and not only as victims of war, the gender issue is indeed an economic issue. Women in Afghanistan — as in other war-torn countries — need to be empowered economically if they are ever to have any meaningful, lasting rights.
The high economic growth achieved by Afghanistan since 9/11 is attributable to the low initial base, the huge levels of aid and the large presence of foreign troops and civilians, which led to rapid expansion in construction and services. Such growth is not only unsustainable but it has also excluded a large portion of the population that depends on the rural sector for a livelihood.
As the foreign presence and aid are sharply cut, starting in 2015, increasing the productivity of the rural sector will be crucial to creating inclusive and sustainable growth in Afghanistan. Without such increase, the country will not wither from its current high levels of food imports and aid dependency.
In Afghanistan, government policies and infrastructure are targeted mostly to benefit small national elites and foreign investors. The rural sector has been clearly neglected and lacks appropriate infrastructure, services, credit and other types of support. This has been a major mistake, given that this sector used to provide food security, exports, jobs and livelihoods before the Communist coup of 1978.
A level playing field for both men and women in the rural sector is key to improving its productivity and moving it away from poppy production. Such policy would benefit women the most since they work hard in agriculture, but their productivity vis-à-vis men has been significantly impaired because of women’s great difficulties in accessing basic inputs for production, including credit, infrastructure and know-how.
Supporting women in the rural areas in an integrated manner would not only result in higher productivity, food security and improved children’s nutrition, but it would also improve women’s rights in rural areas, given their few gains so far, despite the misleadingly positive rhetoric. Only 1 in 15 women in the rural sector is literate; moreover, women’s health indicators in these areas are much worse than those of their brethren in the urban sector.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently began a $175 million program named “Promote” to enhance the role of women in Afghanistan, the largest gender-focused investment in the world. The aim is to build skills among women and to promote them as entrepreneurs with credit and microfinance services.
However, if the USAID continues to channel this type of assistance through the same contractors they have been using — as I was told they would — and if the assistance is not well integrated with other needs that women have in rural areas (health, education, shelter, children’s and family care), the effect will simply be more of the same.
By contrast, providing a level playing field for all Afghans — men and women alike — in security, social services, infrastructure, credit and resources (such as seeds, fertilizers, agricultural machinery and other rural sector needs) could make a difference.
Since it is not possible to build such a framework across the country initially, I have proposed that this could start with the establishment of reconstruction zones in secure areas. By promoting women’s rights in rural areas, these zones could eventually have an impact on the large majority of women, not only on the urban elites.
As Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, has said repeatedly, there is plenty of evidence that the productivity of women in agriculture in developing countries is low precisely because they do not have access to the necessary resources. Providing a level playing field to women would be the best way to improve the productivity of this sector. In the process, food security would be boosted and Afghanistan’s exorbitant dependence on imports would fall.
For Afghanistan to stand on its own feet, it is necessary for the government, donors, foreign investors and the country’s population as a whole, including the neglected half, to start working together. The international community rightly worries about gender issues in Afghanistan after 2014, when the American and NATO troops leave. By equalizing access to productive resources, the reconstruction zones could provide a practical way to address these issues.
The country desperately needs to move away from the economics of war (drugs and other illicit activities that thrived over two decades of conflict and boomed since 9/11) as well as from development-as-usual policies. Reconstruction zones that would create fair opportunities for micro- and small entrepreneurs — both men and women — rather than only for foreign and elite domestic investors could, by reactivating agricultural production and exports, reduce the astronomical twin deficits (fiscal and external) and help the country to reduce its aid dependency.
Afghanistan needs to engage productively in the economics of peace before normal development can take root.