More than two decades of protracted war, impoverishment, disintegration of the rule of law and systematic exclusion of women from social, economic and public life have severely impacted Afghans in general, but Afghan women in particular. Women, together with their children, account for approximately 65% of Afghan internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. More than two million women are war widows and even larger numbers are de facto heads of households. The female illiteracy rate is 85% and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world.
Afghan women who have been left to deal with physical and psychological hardship as sole heads of household constitute one of the most vulnerable social groups in the country. Many women have lost contact with community networks, and traditional solidarity chains have been broken. Reports of violence against women are on the rise as women continue to be harassed, assaulted and raped as targets of ethnic reprisals in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Although there are noticeable changes today in terms of women's mobility and participation in community, many women still lack independent public spaces where they can come together as women.
"The plight of Afghan women and girls has been vividly demonstrated. Throughout the violence, Afghan women have maintained the desire to learn, to educate their children, to contribute to society. We can not sit idly by."
- Sheryl J Swed, Immediate Past President, UNIFEM/USA
As the only United Nations fund established specifically to support women, UNIFEM is working in Afghanistan to highlight gender equality and the active participation of women in the reconstruction efforts. UNIFEM has developed its strategy in consultation with Afghan women and in the context of the country's history and culture.
In early 2002, UNIFEM established a program in Afghanistan to support the formidable challenge of bringing women and their perspectives into the mainstream of national reconstruction. An important focus of UNIFEM's efforts has been working with the Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) to build its staff capacity and program to advance women's rights.
With UNIFEM's assistance, MOWA is addressing the challenge of reaching out to women in the provinces through the establishment of Women's Development Centers (WDC). These Centers fulfill an urgent need for safe meeting places for women to discuss their priorities, gain access to social services and improve their education. At the Centers, local NGOs work together to provide a range of services including; health education, literacy classes, income and vocational skills training, legal and psychological support, childcare and computer training. Classes are offered in the constitutional and electoral process to ensure that women learn about their rights and participate in the political process. Executive Committees, drawn from local NGOs, clinics and schools, oversee the WDCs and work to enhance communication between woman's groups, local authorities, provincial governors and MOWA.
"Progress for women in Afghanistan will mean progress for all citizens... Women's status in Afghanistan should be the barometer of peace and security in the country.."
- Noeleen Heyzer, Former UNIFEM Executive Director