The South Asia Channel

Development Needs to Look Beyond Afghan ‘Women and Children’

Who knew the Taliban could advance a case for post-colonial feminism? When the International Security Assistance Force’s Operation Moshtarak stormed through the dust bowl of southern Afghanistan in 2010, the Taliban had already capitalized on the association of women and children as a protected category of civilians. So the Taliban used them as human shields. ...

Photo by JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

Who knew the Taliban could advance a case for post-colonial feminism?

When the International Security Assistance Force’s Operation Moshtarak stormed through the dust bowl of southern Afghanistan in 2010, the Taliban had already capitalized on the association of women and children as a protected category of civilians. So the Taliban used them as human shields. Ironically, the group understood then what foreign-policy planning continues to undermine today: that "women and children" as a single term of reference in humanitarian discourse can do more harm than good.

To address civilian casualties in terms of women and children in the context of war is one thing. However, extending the paradigm in international development is both myopic and wholly insufficient. This is not to deny that women and children bear a devastating spectrum of atrocities, including targeted sexual violence as casualties of war when men are often combatants. The consolidation of women and children therefore can be a positive association, by ensuring adequate protection and prioritization during a crisis, as political scientist R. Charli Carpenter notes. However, a study of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia by Laura Shepherd states that in equating ‘women and children’ as synonymous with the ‘civilian population,’ protection agencies replicated the notion that the remaining population was composed of ‘fighters’ and legitimised [the Bosnian Serb army’s] targeting of those individuals. As such, socially constructed norms about women and children as "innocent civilians" ended up marginalizing men who were not necessarily combatants.

In development discourse, separating women and children by a conjunction only binds them together as mutually dependent, helpless victims whose protection and well-being rest in the hands of higher, more capable authorities, who are often male in patriarchal contexts such as Afghanistan. The instinct to address women and children as a consolidated, vulnerable population serves an emotive purpose. It is difficult to think of war and post-conflict reconstruction without succumbing to the reflex to talk about women and children together. But in practice, the association infantilizes adult women and reifies stereotypes of helplessness, naiveté, and reliance on others. Such a rendering inextricably ties women’s identities to children as mothers and/or nurturers.

A mixture of paternalistic social norms and varying interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence largely dictates authority over women in Afghanistan. In her sociolinguistic analysis of the Bush administration’s discourse on the war on terror in Afghanistan, Shepherd found the use of "women and children" as discursive concepts that actively reinforced "systems of meaning production [that] are intimately related to practices of power." Such structures substantiate the belief that men and women are unequal and that biology predetermines a women’s place in society. Although Afghan women exercised greater rights and liberties in the 1950s than they do now in the wake of Taliban oppression, placing them on the same level as children — a population that must be cared for — compounds their image of dependency and weakness. Women must be "parented," whether by their male family members, NGOs, or foreign governments.

The mentality is so pervasive that policies and aid programs in Afghanistan and elsewhere often rely on the same discourse to support humanitarian initiatives. As a result, the entire field of gender and development could benefit from reconceptualizing how men and women are treated as agents of change in post-conflict societies. According to international relations scholar Marianne Marchand, "women are now being instrumentalised in order to meet wider development objectives," including goals that are more in line with economic development than gender empowerment or equity. Through the lens of post-colonial feminism, she critiques the limitations of post-9/11 reconstruction priorities as predicated upon neoliberal economic policies. Gender and development, she argues, should transcend beyond "either/or" categories of practice.

In post-conflict development anywhere, a woman and a child bring very different prospects and capabilities to the pursuit of peace and stability, and it is precisely their differing potentials that suffer as a result of the generic identity label. As a development worker in Afghanistan, I interacted with several female Afghan leaders in the commercial and civil society sectors who appreciated the good intentions of NGOs, but criticized development projects and their officials for treating them like children. I sat in meetings where I cringed at the way Afghan women were infantilized by their Western counterparts. Many Afghan women who were aid recipients acknowledged that they needed financial and technical assistance, but the paternalistic and patronizing rhetoric of development organizations was not lost on them. References to "taking off the training wheels" occurred far too often to merit faith in the international community’s belief in Afghan women’s potentials.

Moreover, in the context of Afghanistan, the association does not reinforce a much-needed unity between men and women and instead further highlights their differences. The distinction segregates rather than unifies; it incapacitates rather than empowers; and it continues to ignore the critical role men must assume in backing mutually supportive dialogues for change. To address the needs of vulnerable populations, irrespective of gender or generation, the distinction between men, women, and children must be made. How can we address women’s rights or social protection issues by consolidating two populations with different needs? The world can do better service to women’s rights not just in Afghanistan, but in any country where conflict threatens the roots of tolerance and humanity. Women’s voices cannot be confined among the cries of children.

Morwari Zafar is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in anthropology from Oxford University.

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