Permissible Arms

Humility and Candor

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 18 October 2009

You know, I have philosophical arguments that support the security of human rights, bar none, regardless of nation-state. My thesis was in part a development of the hybrid relationship of the duties and rights of individuals across national borders. But there are times that primary sources supercede my academic arguments, and I suspect this is one of those times.

In today’s Washington Post, Wazhma Frogh offers a first-hand perspective of the future Afghan women face should political reconciliation with the Taliban and/or the abandonment of Afghanistan to its own devices be sought. (I grant that, after the word from the White House this week, no one is seriously talking about withdrawal, but I think this editorial was probably conceived during such talk.) Even if the human rights of Afghan people, Afghan women, is on the bottom of your contemplative ranking of the US involvement in Afghanistan, hearing the account come from someone who was and will be affected is worth your time.

Handing over Afghanistan to those who intend to keep the country centuries behind most of the world — to men who do not view women as human beings — would not only call into doubt the global commitment to human rights, it would also raise questions about the commitment of Western democracies to such rights and to democratic values. Bearing in mind how fragile the Afghan government is at this moment, it will not take long for the country’s women to come under attack again. The consequences will be even more bitter this time because no matter how limited our success, we have at least managed to act in the forefront of public life in Afghanistan. We have had a taste of what it’s like to have rights.

and also:

We see some of NATO’s allies rapidly losing interest in Afghanistan, even though they admit that if the country is left to the insurgents, the consequence will be many more incidents like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They are being persuaded by a propaganda war on the part of insurgents who seem to have convinced much of the world that they are winning the war. But in fact the enemy will win only if the international community allows itself to be influenced by this propaganda campaign.

The question to keep in mind for all parties involved is, what motivated them to come to Afghanistan in the first place? The answer: global security and the protection of human rights in Afghanistan. Are these two purposes no longer valid?

I think it is very easy to write off this effect of decreased American involvement in Afghanistan. But we should not discount it. Again, even if this is the least of reasons to stay, do we not risk undermining our own most precious views of individual freedoms by allowing such human rights violations to freely occur? Hundreds of schools–for both male and female children–have been created in Afghanistan in the eight years ISAF has established its presence. It is a near certainty that they would disappear under political reconciliation with the Taliban, most especially the ones which educate female children.

As a country who only acknowledged women as citizen voters in 1920, I sincerely believe that we cannot abandon an effort that grants women in Afghanistan that same right when that right, and further ones, are threatened by the continued existence of the Afghan Taliban.

If you want to dismiss this argument as that of a bleeding heart, fine. I acknowledge that I find this of greater import than the political-martial ramifications of ISAF’s force increase. But allow me to provide some other pieces of relevant information. In the awarding of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, Kofi Annan spoke:

Today, in Afghanistan, a girl will be born. Her mother will hold her and feed her, comfort her and care for her – just as any mother would anywhere in the world. In these most basic acts of human nature, humanity knows no divisions. But to be born a girl in today’s Afghanistan is to begin life centuries away from the prosperity that one small part of humanity has achieved. It is to live under conditions that many of us in this hall would consider inhuman.

I speak of a girl in Afghanistan, but I might equally well have mentioned a baby boy or girl in Sierra Leone. No one today is unaware of this divide between the world’s rich and poor. No one today can claim ignorance of the cost that this divide imposes on the poor and dispossessed who are no less deserving of human dignity, fundamental freedoms, security, food and education than any of us. The cost, however, is not borne by them alone. Ultimately, it is borne by all of us – North and South, rich and poor, men and women of all races and religions.

Today’s real borders are not between nations, but between powerful and powerless, free and fettered, privileged and humiliated. Today, no walls can separate humanitarian or human rights crises in one part of the world from national security crises in another.

That, not unlike our martial involvement in Afghanistan, was made eight years ago, and we wrestle with the question even now. From Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, allow me to make the comparison of the potential strength of Afghan women to that nascent strength of African women:

One implication is that donor countries should nudge poor countries to adjust their laws to give more economic power to women. For example, it should be routine for a widow to inherit her husband’s property, rather than for it to go to his brothers. It should be easy for women to hold property and bank accounts, and countries should make it much easier for microfinance institutions to start banks. Women now own just 1 percent of the world’s titled land, according to the UN. That has to change.

To its credit, the U.S. government has pushed for these kinds of legal changes. One of the best American foreign aid programs is the Millennium Challenge effort, and it has nudged recipients to amend legal codes to protect women. For example, Lesotho wanted Millennium Challenge money but did not allow women to buy land or borrow money without a husband’s permission. So the United States pushed Lesotho to change the law, and in its eagerness to get the funding it did so.

It may be politically incorrect to note these kinds of gender differences, but they are obvious to aid workers and national leaders alike. Botswana has been one of the fastest-growing countries in the world for decades, and its former president, Festus Mogae, was widely regarded as one of Africa’s most able leaders. He laughed when we suggested delicately that women in Africa typically work harder and handled money more wisely than men, and he responded:

You couldn’t be more right. Women do work better. Banks were the first to see that and hired more women, and now everybody does. In homes, too, women manage affairs better than men. In the Botswanan civil service, women are taking over. Half of the government sector is now women. The governor of the central bank, the attorney general, the chief of protocol, the director of public prosecution—they are all women. … Women perform better in Africa, much better. We see that in Botswana. And their profiles are different. Deferred consumption is higher among girls, and they buy durables and have higher savings rates. Men are more consumption oriented.

And in the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, the organization made the fostering of women a primary concern:

At each stage of a girl’s life there is something we can do to safeguard her future. Each individual investment – to build her self esteem, protect her property rights, feed her properly, make sure she goes to school, provide appropriate skills training – will transform her life, lift her family out of poverty and give her the money and status to contribute to her community and the global economy as a whole.

The 500 million adolescent girls and young women in developing countries are potentially a major force in driving economic progress but, the world over, a continued lack of investment in girls results in increased poverty. If we turn our backs on this generation at this time, if we fail to invest in these communities and the individuals in them, we do irreparable damage to a whole generation of girls, and to their children. This must change: Poverty may have a woman’s face, but sustainable economic prosperity has the face of a girl.

Finally, in terms of straight facts, the United Nations Foundation offers “Why Invest in Adolescent Girls:”

Every year of schooling increases a girl’s individual earning power by 10 to 20 percent, while the return on secondary education is even higher, in the 15 to 25 percent range.

Girls’ education is proven to increase not only wage earners but also productivity for employers, yielding benefits for the community and society.

Women who have control of their own income tend to have fewer children, and fertility rates have shown to be inversely related to national income growth. Girls and young women delaying marriage and having fewer children means a bigger change of increasing per capita income, higher savings, and more rapid growth.

When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families.

The impact of investing in girls is intergenerational. A mother with a few years of formal education is considerably more likely to send her children to school, breaking the intergenerational chain of poverty. In many countries each additional year of formal education completed by a mother translates into her children remaining in school for up to an additional one-half year.

Put simply, investing the education and livelihood of the women of Afghanistan is an investment in the economic stability and security of Afghanistan. We abandon them at our own peril.


5 Responses

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  1. TMLutas said, on 18 October 2009 at 22:23

    I understand your argument. Do you understand why it will fail? We are on the brink of undergoing a great national triage. In all of that struggle to make ends meet after the gross irresponsibility that has stretched back decades, women far away will not have as high a priority on our purse as women closer to home nor as high as men closer to home. Neither you nor I may like it but this is the reality.

    We aren’t rich enough to do it all. Unless you can show a profit on the effort, everything is vulnerable.

  2. TMLutas said, on 19 October 2009 at 02:14

    I understand your argument. Do you understand why it will fail? We are on the brink of undergoing a great national triage. In all of that struggle to make ends meet after the gross irresponsibility that has stretched back decades, women far away will not have as high a priority on our purse as women closer to home nor as high as men closer to home. Neither you nor I may like it but this is the reality.

    We aren’t rich enough to do it all. Unless you can show a profit on the effort, everything is vulnerable.
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can’t wait to read your next one!

    • karakapend said, on 20 October 2009 at 11:07

      Thanks for your comment. I think arguing from the point that “women elsewhere are not as important, so they won’t be as important” is fairly recursive, and underscores the need for an alternate perspective such as the one Frogh offers in her op-ed. My point was to illustrate that Afghan women are important in the greater context of accomplishing anything in Afghanistan, and we would do well to further their freedoms both economic and democratic. By doing so we contribute to the larger goal of stabilizing Afghanistan, which I think is a fairly commonly held view. That, primarily, is what this point argues.

      • TMLutas said, on 20 October 2009 at 13:28

        It is not that women elsewhere are not important but that everything elsewhere is not important. Triage will be on all foreign entanglements unless they have strong links to domestic interests. The 1% of he US population that cares about foreign affairs as a priority are going to lose out on most of their arguments as we wake up to inflationary reality that is coming.

  3. karakapend said, on 21 October 2009 at 16:57

    For whatever reason it’s not letting me reply directly to your comment, TMLutas. Weird.

    I understand what you’re saying, but I respectfully disagree; the United States increased its aid package from $2bn for FY09 to $2.15bn in FY10, and that suggests to me (as well as the three specific programs/reports allocated for Afghan women and girls as described in the conclusions of this CRS Afghan Aid document) that this is of importance despite whatever inflationary reality you’re referring to. I don’t think the argument has been lost yet.

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