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In Afghanistan, Cultural Realities Defeat Gender Equality Efforts

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In Afghanistan, Cultural Realities Defeat Gender Equality Efforts

The United States has been mired in Afghanistan since 2001, and few see much evidence that there has been anything passing as “achieving broader U.S. strategic objectives.” In his insightful article back in November 2018, Liberty Nation’s Andrew Moran put the U.S. Afghanistan presence in context, explaining:

The United States is spending less than at the height of the war – $112.7 billion in 2010 compared to $54 billion in 2018 – but the increasing tally is still incredible. In total, the Afghan venture has cost Americans $1.07 trillion – and counting. This is about one-quarter of the annual U.S. budget, more than the Marshall Plan, and half of the Iraq War. After all the bloodshed and dollars and cents, what does the United States have to show for it?”

Against that backdrop, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), recently issued a report that described the lessons learned from the U.S. efforts to promote the value and importance of Afghan women and girls in their culture and society.

The report is an honest appraisal of what the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Defense has accomplished in the last 19 years and $787 million to raise the status of women and girls in Afghanistan. Whether you believe that the U.S. is spinning its wheels using taxpayer dollars accomplishing nothing or seeing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as crucial to lifting up the most at risk of not having a rewarding future, there is something in this report that will support your position.

First, let’s understand that of the $1.07 trillion total investment by the U.S. in Afghanistan, $787 million to promote women and young girls is 0.074 percent of that investment over 19 years. In most circles, that qualifies as “paltry.” The SIGAR lessons learned report makes the same point comparing other U.S. investments with funds provided by women’s “gender equality” programs. The report says,

“SIGAR identified these programs based on a review of available program documents and information received from agencies. By comparison, approximately $141.25 billion has been spent on reconstruction assistance since 2002—$86.38 billion for security, $35.95 billion for governance and development, $4.13 billion for humanitarian aid, and $14.79 billion for agency operations.”

With that level of funding, gender equality program advocates point to the, albeit modest, successes to raise the level of aspirations and actual achievement of women and girls in Afghanistan. They point out that the percentage of 15-year-old girls attending primary school has risen in the nine years between 2011 and 2019 by 26.3% from 2,022,402 to 2,554,907. SIGAR reports a more impressive increase in girls attending secondary school. Starting with only 656,542 enrolled in 2011, that number has grown to 1,080,574 in 2019, or up by 64.4%.

Little Accomplishment

If you are skeptical about the value of U.S. involvement in “foreign wars,” the SIGAR lessons learned report has data and commentary to support that position. By western standards, not much has been accomplished despite the American and allied lives lost and treasure spent. Opponents of U.S. operations in Afghanistan point to the SIGAR report’s statistics that show that with all the money spent, literacy rates between 2005 and 2017 for females ages 15 and up have stagnated between 18 and 19 percent.  The report points out:

“Yet serious obstacles remain, and they are often worse in rural areas. These include traditional gender norms which discourage girls’ education past primary school, poor school infrastructure, a lack of female teachers, and insecurity—all of which keep large numbers of girls from attending school.”

At a very fundamental level, there are no Dari or Pashto words for the terms “gender” and “gender equality.” This fact alone makes it nearly impossible to communicate the importance of educating women and girls. The notion of equality of women with men in a society, especially in rural communities, dominated by patriarchal tribal and family leadership, is a non-starter.

In the end, as the SIGAR report states: “Between 2002 and 2020, U.S. efforts to support women, girls, and gender equality in Afghanistan yielded mixed results.”  Despite America’s  good intentions, the lessons learned realized that “[s]ome programs were designed based on assumptions that proved to be ill-suited to the Afghan context and the challenges that women and girls faced.”

Prompted by President George W. Bush and Congress, there was a nobility of purpose in U.S. operations in Afghanistan, linking core American values and women’s rights to achieve “gender equality.” But as things are turning out, noble purposes struggle and fail against cultural realities.


The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.


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