When foreign troops finally exit Afghanistan next year, they will leave behind a mixed legacy. Yes, the long and bloody war has been a failure on many fronts, but there is compelling new evidence of fragile progress for one unlikely, yet crucial demographic: young, educated, employed Afghan women.
An upcoming report based on a survey by Building Markets, an international NGO, sheds some rare light on the participation of Afghan women in the formal, private-sector economy. As it turns out, the past decade has seen significant gains for female Afghan entrepreneurs, businesswomen and employees.
Consider these key findings: Most of the 800 women surveyed said marriage does not stand in the way of their work. An overwhelming 96 per cent have the support of their families to pursue their chosen careers. Perhaps most surprisingly, these predominantly young women are cautiously optimistic, and believe that with proper support their businesses will thrive beyond the withdrawal of foreign forces next year.
The survey was limited in scope (though it was the largest of its kind) and left out huge swaths of the Afghan female population. Poor, rural, uneducated women were not its focus and, obviously, they continue to face unimaginable hardships. The status of Afghan women is still one of the lowest in the world. The country ranked 147 out of 148 countries, according to the Human Development Index indicator last year.
Violence against women remains endemic. Last week, the top female police officer in Helmand province was assassinated on her way to work. In August, insurgents attacked the convoy of a female Afghan senator and killed her eight-year-old daughter.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, with much of the Western world in tow, the plight of Afghan women was often cited as part of the justification for war.
The data suggests that, on a practical level, during the past decade of foreign military intervention, Afghan women have managed to change their own society for themselves.
Of course, barriers remain. Eighty-one per cent could not access any credit or financing for their business. Many would love to have more support with financial management, technical support and accessing buyers. A majority listed their greatest difficulty as not being taken seriously by the outside business world.
They should be. These young, Afghan businesswomen in turn help lift other, less fortunate Afghan women out of poverty through employment. Their hard-fought gains must be protected and advanced, even after the foreign troops have left.