The agony for Afghanistan's women ended with the fall of the Taliban in 2001. This past January, Saira Shikeb Sadat, whose husband disappeared under Taliban rule, assumed office as Afghanistan's first female district administrator in Jawzjan province.
One of her top priorities is to empower women and girls, which she says can be achieved through the development of her district, Khawaja Do Koh, with its population of 5,000 whose access to education, health care and employment assistance, such as income-generation schemes, has been very limited.
Thousands of women are now active in Afghanistan in various public capacities. The first female provincial governor and district mayor in Afghan history are serving their constituencies. The key ministries of public health, women's affairs, and labour, social affairs, martyrs and disabled are led by women, as is Afghanistan's Independent Commission on Human Rights.
Yet despite these important advances, the condition of women in Afghanistan is in need of urgent attention. One woman dies in childbirth every 29 minutes, the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world (1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births). Mountainous terrain and weather conditions prevent timely medical attention to patients and pregnant women. Severe food shortages have resulted in chronic malnourishment among children, and 48 per cent of Afghan women are iron-deficient.
Millions of girls cannot attend school because of security concerns or restrictive social norms. Just 12 per cent of women 15 years and older can read and write, compared to 39 per cent of men.
This troubling situation is a legacy of decades of war and state collapse in the country. During the past 30 years of war, the needs of women were neglected because Afghanistan did not have effective state institutions that could provide services. Under the Taliban, women were relegated to the confines of their homes and deprived of education and basic human rights.
Afghanistan today is making efforts to recover from the effects of decades of utter desolation and destitution. Improving the condition of women is a priority in the national development strategy. In the past 11 years, schools and universities have opened their doors to a record number of women. Of nearly 5 million children in grades one through six, 36.6 per cent are girls. The number of girls in high school almost doubled from 2007 to 2008, from 67,900 to 136,621 students. These numbers have continued to rise through 2012, despite a spike in the number of terrorist attacks across Afghanistan, often targeting schools, teachers and students, with most victims being girls.
Public health also has seen tremendous improvement over the past 11 years. Up to 80 per cent of the Afghan population has access to basic health care, up from just 8 per cent in 2001. More than 1,650 professional midwives are employed by the ministry of public health, providing health care and childbirth services across Afghanistan. This has helped reduce infant mortality rates by 23 per cent, saving 80,000 newborn lives each year.
In addition to taking these concrete steps, we are working to change societal mindsets. In some parts of Afghanistan's most traditional areas, attitudes hamper the progress of women.
The Afghan government not only makes and implements policies, but also functions as an agent of social change, working to ameliorate traditional views that hold women back. We are partnering with local elders and religious figures to ensure that attitudes change through a community-centred approach.
Slowly, we are seeing progress. As the success story of Ms Sadat and others reminds us, women are the pillars of Afghanistan. With enhanced attention to women's issues, more than half of the Afghan population can be socially, economically and politically empowered to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan's long-term development.
The international community must help the Afghan government approach the task of empowering women as a continual process rather than as a single benchmark, for experience shows us that legal equality does not always translate into equal treatment.
M Ashraf Haidari is the deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in India and a former deputy assistant national security adviser of Afghanistan