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October 26, 2012

British Ministers: Women's Rights Key to Stable Afghanistan

by Selah Hennessy

British ministers say the development program in Afghanistan is failing to protect the rights of Afghan women. A new government report says Britain should reconsider its ambition of building Afghan government institutions and instead focus on more traditional aid targets, especially women's rights.

British parliamentarian Malcolm Bruce chaired a new study advising Britain's Department for International Development on its program in Afghanistan. Bruce says Britain is not doing enough to make sure women's rights are protected.

"They have benefited a lot from the end of the Taliban and from the period if you like of international engagement," said Bruce.  "Many of them are really concerned that the gains could be lost and there is certainly evidence that it is being pushed back."

Of nearly 100 projects funded by Britain in Afghanistan, Bruce says only two of those are directly or explicitly focused on women.

In some regions of Afghanistan women's rights have improved since the Taliban fell over a decade ago.

3.2 million girls are now studying, that's a concrete improvement following the ban on female education under Taliban rule in the 1990s.

But Afghanistan is still considered one of the worst countries for women to live and progress has not come without sacrifices.

The United Nations says in 2011 there were at least 185 attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan, the majority in opposition to girls' education.

In its report the International Development Select Committee said Britain is wasting its roughly $300 million annual budget for Afghanistan.

Bruce says too much is spent on bolstering the Afghan government, money he thinks could be better spent elsewhere.

"Whilst a lot has been achieved and it would be wrong to underestimate that, building a viable state has not happened and is not really going to happen any time soon and yet that is supposedly the British government mission," said Bruce.  "So I think our view was rather than focus exclusively on that you really should concentrate on the things that you can achieve recognizing you may have to be fleet of foot and very flexible as the situation changes on the ground."

Bruce says when international combat forces leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the British government should work alongside local non-governmental organizations to support the most vulnerable.

In response to the report, a spokesperson for the Department for International Development said it is committed to effective development work that alleviates poverty and that women's rights should be at the heart of its work in Afghanistan.

The department said it has helped get millions of girls into school.

Gareth Price is an expert on Afghanistan at the London-based research group Chatham House. He says Britain's aim of bolstering the Afghan government is a good one, despite the challenges.

"Building up the Afghan state has to be a priority," said Price.  "You want to build up the state system, not leave it to NGOs [non-governmental organizations] who will be very vulnerable in the event of things taking a downturn after 2014."

Strengthening the state, he says, is the best way to fortify education and women's rights.