The U.S. plans to commit $200 million to propel the education, training and promotion of young women in Afghanistan’s government, business sector and civil society, in an effort to prevent backsliding and cement progress made in the past decade.

Panel left to right: Rangina Hamidi, Kandahar Treasure; Naheed Farid, Afghan Parliament; Hossai Wardak, USIP; William Byrd, USIP: Palwasha Kakar, The Asia Foundation; and Carla Koppell, USAID.

The U.S. plans to commit $200 million to propel the education, training and promotion of young women in Afghanistan’s government, business sector and civil society, in an effort to prevent backsliding and cement progress made in the past decade.

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, made the announcement yesterday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, calling it “the largest single investment USAID has ever made in its history in the future of women and girls anywhere in the world.”

The U.S. also seeks to persuade other foreign donors to contribute the same amount for a total package of $416 million over five years. Called “Promote,” the program will target educated women ages 18-30, a group whose potential has improved markedly with gains in child and maternal health and in the number attending schools, including higher education. The funds will be released as the government of Afghanistan meets its commitments to reforms laid out during a 2012 conference in Tokyo.

“As we achieve a military transition, Afghanistan’s future will be more dependent on its development progress and, in particular, on the role of women in society,” Shah told an audience of about 200 who attended the announcement and a panel discussion on the prospects and challenges for women in Afghanistan. The chances of success in Afghanistan overall are “fundamentally grounded in a society that creates opportunity for women and girls.”

Palwasha Kakar, director of women’s empowerment and development programs at the Asia Foundation, said she’s already seeing a retreat in the leeway women have in Afghan society, as U.S.-led international forces withdraw. Attacks are continuing and in some areas resuming against women appearing in public spaces or even going to health clinics, and on girls attending school. A survey last year found that more than 80 percent of Afghan women fear for their personal safety, she said.

Kakar cited deep anxiety and even fear over questions such as whether next year’s presidential election will usher in stability or greater turmoil, whether the U.S. and its NATO partners will retain some troops to help support Afghan government forces, and whether the Taliban will return to power in some form and re-impose draconian social norms.

“Things keep changing moment by moment,” Kakar said. “We don’t know what’s going to be happening.”

USIP President Jim Marshall and William Byrd, a development economist and Afghanistan senior expert at the institute, cited the critical role women play in emerging societies and economies.

“It’s well-established that countries where women are empowered, educated, where women are equal are countries that are more peaceful,” Marshall said. “They’re also countries that are more prosperous.”

Marshall said those factors are intertwined with the political transition, which he said was top of the list of priorities in most conversations during a visit to Afghanistan last September. “The United States should not be stingy in any way in trying to support” an effective political transition in Afghanistan, he said.

Byrd cautioned that, while the planned USAID spending to elevate the role of women and girls in Afghanistan is admirable and appropriate, it doesn’t make sense for the U.S. to simultaneously consider leaving no troops behind to support the Afghan forces, an idea that has been floated publicly.

“If the Afghan government emerges from the political transition with diminished rather than enhanced credibility and legitimacy, or if security deteriorates and violent conflict worsens, Afghan women and girls will suffer disproportionately,” Byrd said.

He also cautioned that an emphasis on young women in urban centers shouldn’t preclude continued assistance in rural areas, where gains for women have “generally been more modest.”

Women in the labor force have been key in economic growth historically, from Japan in the 19th Century to the “East Asian miracle” that transformed a half dozen or so economies in that region last century, Byrd said.

Rangina Hamidi, founder of a successful business called Kandahar Treasure that makes and sells embroidered Afghan handicrafts, gave an example of how economic power translates into advancement and independence for women. One of her longtime female employees, a widow, recently defied her brother, who had refused to allow her daughter to work as an intern in the business. The mother decided to let her daughter take on the position anyway, and also decided to move out of what she said was an abusive family home, Hamidi said. She couldn’t have done that without the independence that came with the income from her job.

Afghanistan has achieved one of the fastest reductions in maternal and child deaths anywhere in the world over the past decade, and girls now account for about a third of students in school there, according to USAID. More than 120,000 young women have completed secondary school and 40,000 are studying in universities. Women also make up more than a quarter of the Afghan parliament.

Still, Hossai Wardak, a visiting expert at USIP who works in Afghanistan for an organization that tracks the country’s finances, said only about 1.5 percent of total expenditures go for health care. That’s a sign of the low priority given to services that support women especially.

Naheed Farid, one of the female members of Parliament, told the USIP audience that one of the most important steps to building democracy in Afghanistan will be to increase and strengthen the role of women in government.

“Afghan women have already started their irreversible journey to their future,” Farid said. “And it’s very important that Afghanistan’s government, their society, their family, and their international supporters support them and help them.”

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