Afghanistan is still one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Now that Canada's costly and controversial overseas mission there is winding down, this country has a unique opportunity to develop a new role in Afghanistan as a champion of women's rights.
Canada should accept our responsibility for the women of Afghanistan, and make the advancement of their condition a primary foreign-policy objective.
Canada engaged the Taliban with a moral imperative, in many minds. Some progress has been made since the war began in 2001. However, a resurgence of the Taliban, and the withdrawal of foreign troops, will leave women vulnerable in that deeply conservative country. This is one aspect of Canada's mission that must not abruptly end.
The Harper government needs a more systematic approach for its post-conflict role, one that ties aid to documented improvements in women's access to legal reform, education, and health-care services. The challenges are abundant. In many parts of the country, men still decide everything from what a woman can wear and whether she can work, to whom she will marry, whether she receives an inheritance and when she can see a doctor. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth remain the No. 1 cause of death for women.
Ottawa should heed the advice of CARE Canada, which has called on the government to measure its post-conflict engagement in Afghanistan through the lens of improved human rights. Specifically, Canada could help tackle the barriers girls face in attending primary and secondary school; help train Afghan police in human rights; protect female leaders; ensure women are included in public-policy debate and peace-building; and focus on maternal and child health.
Afghan women need support so they can claim what is rightly theirs. Canada has an enduring obligation, and must not abandon what it has started.