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Gains, Setbacks for Women's Equality in Afghanistan, Bangladesh

Afghan women arrive to attend a ceremony to mark International Women's day in Kabul March 10, 2011.

Afghan women arrive to attend a ceremony to mark International Women's day in Kabul March 10, 2011.

This week marked the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.

In two South Asian countries, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, women seeking equality have seen some surprising gains despite ongoing setbacks.

VOA's Sarah Williams spoke with Carol Yost, director of the Asia Foundation's Women's Empowerment Program, who says women fared very well in last year's parliamentary elections in Afghanistan.

"They [women] hold 27 percent of the seats in the national assembly and 25 percent in the provincial councils. So that has been remarkable progress and, in fact, is higher than many countries in the region."

Click here for the full interview

What do you attribute that high rate to?

"As you know, the Afghan constitution guarantees equal rights for women and forbids any discrimination against women. I think women were very eager to be part of the political process after having been confined to their homes and not able to go to school or hold jobs under the Taliban. And there have been a number of organizations that have really been helping women develop messages, run for office, encouraging them to run. They are very brave women because in some parts of the country it's very dangerous for them to stand for elections. But they did anyway."

Also, Afghanistan has good news regarding the number of girls now attending school.

"Yes, in the last 10 years since 2001, when they had no girls in school under the Taliban. They have now about 2.5 million out of six million girls of primary schoool age. That is certainly tremendous progress. But there still are major problems in getting all girls into school. There are not enough girls schools. There is a lack of female teachers, so that the families are unwilling to send their girls to school. There are just male teachers. The schools are too far away to walk. And most of the schools we've been working on are in shambles."

Afghan girls attend their first day of class at a school in the village of Deh Hassan.

Afghan girls attend their first day of class at a school in the village of Deh Hassan.

"And, yet, there are girls at schools, often three shifts of girls going to school. We've worked in a number of large schools in Kabul and the Kabul environs that have thousands of girls in school and, yet, they can only go to school for a few hours a day because they have to go in shifts to get them all into school. There are inadequate facilities."

I would think in a country like Afghanistan, in addition to Kabul, in the rural areas, it's probably more challenging for girls to get an education.

"It absolutely is. There is a severe shortage of female teachers. There is a great need to train women in the rural areas to be teachers and get the community support. But the majority of Afghans do want their girls to go to school, polls show. So, that's positive. But the government just has not been able to keep up with the needs of the country."

Looking at another country in South Asia: Bangladesh, where apparently female students there have made a number of gains in the education system.

"Yes, they have. The enrollment in primary school is over 50 percent now for girls, but the drop out rate for secondary school girls is 50 percent. So, they go through primary school, then their families need them to work at home. They also have one of the highest rates of early marriage in the world in Bangladesh. That's another problem. We have had programs to keep girls in secondary school in many South Asian countries because we find it just has so many benefits, not only to the girls and their children, but their families and communities."

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

And in Bangladesh, of course, there are two women certainly that are very prominent in politics, but in general, how are women involved in the politics of that country on a lower level?

"Well, they've certainly gained visibility and there is a lot of activism of women in the political arena. And, yet, there's still a long way to go. There are still discriminatory laws in critical areas for women like marriage, divorce, custody. The inheritance law still discriminates against women, who can only inherit half of the property that a son would inherit from their parents. Although the constitution guarantees equal rights, it doesn't translate into equality for women in other aspects of the law."