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MADRE Talking Points on Women in Afghanistan: Confronting the Legacy of US-Supported Extremism

Posted on: Thursday, April 2, 2009

Keywords: Afghanistan, Peace Building, US Foreign Policy

Background on Afghan Women’s Activism

  • Most people in the US assume that Taliban-style extremism is deeply ingrained in Afghan history and culture. In fact, it’s a recent imposition and a product of US intervention.
  • Since the mid-1800s, Afghan governments have slowly but steadily advanced progressive reforms in democratization, education and women’s rights. Gains were made despite widespread poverty and opposition from socially conservative local leaders.
  • In 1923, Afghanistan’s first constitution granted women suffrage and other rights consistent with the moderate version of Islam practiced by most Afghans.
  • During the 1960s and 1970s, women won more rights, participated in government and benefited from higher education.
  • But progressive reforms came under attack by Islamists opposed to modernity, women’s rights, and democratization. These forces were supported by the US to counter nationalists, socialists and others in the region who might ally with the Soviet Union.
  • Throughout the 1980s, many progressive Afghans were killed or exiled, but others carried on the fight for human rights.
  • Even during the worst days of the Taliban (1996-2001), Afghan women ran underground networks to deliver medical care to women, operated clandestine schools for girls and secretly documented and publicized Taliban atrocities abroad.

The Consequences of US Invasion of Afghanistan for Women
  • The Bush Administration justified the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 by pointing to the Taliban’s systematic abuse of women. But subsequent US policies in Afghanistan did not uphold women’s human rights. As a result:   
    1. 1 in every 3 Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence
    2. 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan
    3. Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth
    4. 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate
    5. 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan
    6. 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan
  • While school enrollment is high in cities, in the southern provinces the number drops to 20% of children overall—and almost zero for girls.  
  • In these provinces, where extremist forces crack down on women’s freedoms, the US has failed to fund humanitarian and reconstruction efforts for years.

Today, Afghan women remain a vital progressive force for rebuilding their country, advancing human rights, and fostering peace in Afghanistan and the region.  The challenges they face are monumental and will only be worsened by the surge in US troops planned by President Obama.  For more information on the impact of US military activity on Afghan women and families, click here.


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