A Shameful Neglect

It's time to stop pretending that America's in Afghanistan to help women.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Afghanistan’s iniquities are grotesque. At Kabul University last week, zealots — all men — protested a law that would abolish child marriage, forced marriage, marital rape, and the odious practice, called ba’ad, of giving girls away to settle offenses or debts. Meanwhile, in jails all over the country, 600 women, the highest number since the fall of the Taliban, await trial on charges of such moral transgressions as having been raped or running away from abusive homes.

It is tempting to wring our hands at such obscene bigotry, to pity Afghanistan’s women and vilify its men. Instead, we must look squarely at our own complicity in the shameful circumstances of Afghan women, billions of international aid dollars and 12 years after U.S. warplanes first bombed their ill-starred land.

I have been traveling to Afghanistan since 2001, mostly to its hardscrabble hinterland, where the majority of Afghans live. Over the years, I have cooked rice and traded jewelry with Afghan women, cradled their anemic children, and fallen asleep under communal blankets in their cramped mud-brick homes. I have seen firsthand that the aid we give ostensibly to improve their lives almost never makes it to these women. Today, just as 12 years ago, most of them still have no clean drinking water, sanitation, or electricity; the nearest clinic is still often a half day’s walk away, and the only readily available palliative is opium. Afghan mothers still watch their infants die at the highest rate in the world, mostly of waterborne diseases such as bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis, and typhoid.

Instead of fixing women’s lives, our humanitarian aid subsidizes Afghanistan’s kleptocrats, erects miniature Versailles in Kabul and Dubai for the families of the elite, and buys the loyalty of sectarian warlords-turned-politicians, some of whom are implicated in sectarian war crimes that include rape. Yet, for the most part, the U.S. taxpayers look the other way as the country’s amoral government steals or hands out as political kickbacks the money that was meant to help Afghan women — all in the name of containing what we consider the greater evil, the Taliban insurgency. In other words, we have made a trade-off. We have joined a kind of a collective ba’ad, a political deal for which the Afghan women are the price.

To be sure, a lot of well-meaning Westerners and courageous Afghans have worked very hard to improve women’s conditions, and there has been some headway as far as women’s rights are concerned. The number of girls signed up for school rose from just 5,000 before the U.S.-led invasion to 2.2 million. In Kabul and a handful of other cities, some women have swapped their polyester burqas for headscarves. Some even have taken jobs outside their homes. But here, too, progress has been uneven. A fifth of the girls enrolled in school never attend classes, and most of the rest drop out after fourth grade. Few Afghan parents prioritize education for their daughters because few Afghan women participate in the country’s feudal economy, and because Afghan society, by and large, does not welcome education for girls or emancipation of women. To get an idea about what the general Afghan public thinks of emancipation, consider this: the post-2001 neologism "khanum free" — "free woman," with the adjective transliterated from the English — means "a loose woman," "a prostitute." In villages, women almost never appear barefaced in front of strangers.

Doffing their burqas is the least of these women’s worry. Their real problem is the intangible and seemingly irremovable shroud of endless violence. It stunts infrastructure and perpetuates insecurity and fear. It deprives women of the basic human rights we take for granted: to have enough food and drinking water that doesn’t fester with disease; to see all of their children live past the age of five. The absence of basic necessities and the violence that has concussed Afghanistan almost continuously since the beginning of recorded history are the main reasons the country has the fifth-lowest life expectancy in the world. The war Westerners often claim to be fighting in the name of Afghan women instead helps prolong their hardship — with little or no compensation. And now, as the deadline for the international troop pullout approaches, the country is spinning toward a full-blown civil war. A handful of hardline men shouting slogans at Kabul University fades in comparison.

How to help Afghan women? The road to their wellbeing begins with food security, health care that works, and a government that protects them against sectarian violence. Right now, none of these exist. I wish I could offer an adequate solution to the tragic circumstances of the women of Afghanistan’s back-of-beyond. There does not appear to be one. Hurling yet more aid dollars into a intemperate funnel that will never reach their villages is not the answer: there is little reason to believe that we can count that such funding would be spent on creating enough mobile clinics to pay regular visits to remote villages; build roads that would allow the women and their families easy access to market; facilitate sanitation projects that would curb major waterborne diseases. The impending troop withdrawal means that women’s security will likely go from bad to worse.

Is it possible to ensure that some of the funding we now hand to Karzai and Co. — an estimated $15.7 billion in 2010-2011, according to the CIA (and that’s not counting the infamous ghost money) — is distributed among the small non-profits that actually are trying to make life in Afghanistan livable, organizations that create mobile clinics to pay regular visits to remote villages, build roads that allow villagers easier access to market, facilitate sanitation projects that curb major waterborne diseases? This could be a start, but only if these organizations continue to work in Afghanistan after NATO troops leave. That, too, is in question now: this week an attack against the International Committee for Red Cross led the organization to suspend its operations in the country for the first time in almost 30 years. But wringing our hands at Afghan women’s abysmal state and shaky social status is not a way out. It is a navel-gazing conversation that avoids looking squarely at our role in perpetuating the very dire condition we condemn.

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