Empowering women in Afghanistan

August 2, 2013 by Peter Dizikes
A woman in rural Afghanistan answers questions about the effects of the country's National Solidarity Program. Credit: FOTINI CHRISTIA

In recent decades, Afghanistan has been a notoriously difficult place for women to participate in civic matters. But a new study co-authored by an MIT political scientist, which assessed Afghanistan's largest development aid program through a novel field experiment in about 500 villages, shows that women can participate constructively in political decision-making in rural Afghanistan—and realize other civic and economic benefits as a result.

The experiment, conducted over four years, assessed the impact of a community-driven program run by the Afghan government. The program required participating villages to have gender equality in their jirga or shura, local councils that typically oversee public goods and disputes, and mandated that women also vote in elections for these offices.

The evaluation, conducted by the , looked at the effects of this program; it found that women in participating villages were 15 percent more likely to have worked in income-generating activities, for instance, compared to women in nonparticipating villages. Women in participating villages were also 50 percent more likely to report having someone with whom they can discuss problems in their villages. Social attitudes shifted in these localities, too: Men were 39 percent less likely to think that women should play no role in village decision-making.

"Afghanistan, given its years of and political unrest, is a very unlikely place to see results from development aid—even more so for women's issues, given the society's strong tribal and customary structures," says Fotini Christia, an associate professor of at MIT and co-author of a new paper on the study.

"It was therefore quite remarkable to find that a community-driven development program, mandating the creation of elected, gender-balanced councils, leads to an increase in women's involvement in the community overall, as well as in income generation, mobility and broader socialization," Christia adds.

The paper, "Empowering Women through Development Aid," is being published in the August issue of the American Political Science Review. Along with Christia, the paper's co-authors are Andrew Beath, an economist at the World Bank, and Ruben Enikolopov, an assistant professor at the New Economic School in Moscow.

Toward equality in voting

The researchers evaluated the Afghan government's National Solidarity Programme (NSP), which aims to foster rural development, more representative government, and better services and infrastructure. The program is funded by the World Bank and other sponsors, and is run by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

Various NSP projects have been developed in more than 30,000 villages. Some 500 villages that were part of the researchers' evaluation were spread throughout 10 administrative districts, intended to represent Afghanistan's ethnic diversity: Five are predominantly Tajik districts, four are largely Pashtun, one is predominantly Hazara, and two have significant Uzbek and Turkmen populations.

The program started in 2003; the results described in the paper come from a study of the project's second phase, carried out from 2007 through 2011. To generate their results, Christia and her colleagues collected survey data gathered from more than 13,000 male and female respondents from the villages in question, which measured both tangible changes in political practices and attitudes about gender.

Even when local councils exist, they do not necessarily meet regularly. However, the survey showed that villages participating in the project were 4 percentage points more likely to meet, and 8 percentage points more likely to discuss issues with women from other villages.

Among other changes in attitude, men in the participating villages were 19 percent more likely to think that women should be allowed to vote in elections for the village headman, compared to men in nonparticipating villages, and women in participating villages were 8 percent more likely to think so.

All told, the project "speaks to the broader role of the effects of development aid on women's issues, particularly in other places that have rigid social and traditional structures," Christia says. "If community-driven development can have a positive effect on women's lives in rural Afghanistan, it could be something to consider in several other places that are challenging for women."

At least one thing did not change in the participating villages: Important household decisions remained very much the domain of men, and attitudes about such family roles did not budge.

"We find no such effects on women's role in the family core, but those would be harder to change and would require a lot more time," Christia says.

But are these changes durable?

Other scholars say the study both contains valuable findings, and suggests the need for further research on the effects of such development interventions.

"This line of research is extremely fruitful," says Donald P. Green, a at Columbia University, who has read the study and calls it an "unusually ambitious in a part of the world everyone's interested in." Still, as Green notes, it remains an open question whether these types of development aid projects can transform government practices over extended periods of time: "One of the next steps is to look at institutions," he says, with an eye to seeing how those governing norms may or may not change.

Certainly any civic gains would seem to be significant in a country where only 11 percent of nonelite female villagers attend religious school, 3 percent attend secular school, and the average number of years of education, for women who have attended school at all, is only three years.

But as Christia acknowledges, it is an open question whether the gains realized in the Afghan experiment are long-lasting or will evaporate once the funding for the programs ceases.

"It would be great to see how lasting these effects are, that is, to see if interventions that last for longer have stronger or more durable effects," Christia says. "The general question is therefore one of sustainability."

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1 / 5 (6) Aug 02, 2013
Afghans should come to the USA and teach women to behave like ladies i.e., respect their husbands, be polite and well behaved, and so on.

So we have a fair cultural exchange, instead of the classic American bigotry in which Americans watch at the world with the eyes of "we are going to show you how to live right".... HAHAHA with a climbing suicide rate, high rate of drug addiction, etc, America should stay quiet.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 06, 2013
It isn't just America that has issues regarding bad behaviour or bigotry. Or misogeny. How about the husbands respecting their wives? How about the husband being polite and behaving well?? Respect has to cut both ways, Mauricio, or all you have is the man being incharge/free to do or behave as he wants and the woman being subservient/obedient. This imbalance is the big issue in the first place, in Afghanistan (apart from the Taliban or their other religious impositions.) It doesn't matter WHICH gender you are, it you think that you are owed this kind of treatment, but not have to behave that way yourself in return, and that this is equality, you need to think again.
1 / 5 (8) Aug 06, 2013
Only Americans thinks respect implies submission, that is probably everybody is rude here. My ex american wife keep saying you EARN respect, so she is rude to everyone she does not know. And yet I don't know everyone she respects. But she is the first one running "oh see how they treat women there!" And I ask: "how they treat men over there?" And she replies "you are such an idiot". What makes women "special"? why their suffering is intolerable?

Few countries in the world are as violent and sick as america, but keep it in denial, that is what fuels this insanity.

Go ahead, have a drink and buy a gun. HAHAHA
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 06, 2013
I was once asked by a recent immigrant woman from I believe it was from Lebanon why the family was so fragile in America, with divorce and late marriage and so on. I asked her to look at cultures where family was paramount, and look at the relative freedom of women. If you want the mythical "strong family" just stick one gender with the bill in lost opportunity and freedom.

The cost of freedom is the death of institutions born of inequality. And one man bitter about his ex doesnt really change that.
1 / 5 (9) Aug 06, 2013
I know so well that america will not change that, no matter how many people kill themselves every year or how many die in over dose. Let the country drown in child porn, guns and other of the things that come with "freedom".

I know, nothing will change "freedom".

In the meantime, the UK prohibit guns and violence goes down. Now they cut pornography and obviously it will improve their culture.....
1.1 / 5 (7) Aug 06, 2013
It is nice that it is recognized by one of the bloggers that family is dead in America. I hope I can live long enough to see what is the replacement of families. I want to see the American proposal to raise psychologically HEALTHY children without a family.

The children I know gets destroyed with the American family "structure". I am sure they are looking for a new drug that children will take and the need for having a family will disappear lol. Or someone needs to find the "gene" that controls the affection that children feel for their father, or the satisfaction they experience when they have a good supportive family, so they can take the gene out and replace it with a gene that is going to make men very obedient to women. Probably a gene that blocks the production of testosterone? or make American men being born without testicles?
2.3 / 5 (6) Aug 06, 2013
Family is not dead. The patriarchal model, however, is rightfully dying. And I do not mourn its passing.

Inequality generates conflict; economic, social, gender, and so on. You can keep your backward looking sensibilities as the rest of the world moves forward, but I hope you don't have a chance in Hell of inflictng them on anyone else.
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 06, 2013
Mauricio - It's because of people like you that child abuse, spousal abuse, and racism are still thriving. When the "man" feels everything is owed to him and he owns everything then beating his child or his wife is no big deal. He owns them so he can do as he pleases. Right?

You think you ways are better then ours? I don't. I grew up in a house that had one of your types in it. I would never subject anyone to that kind of mental and physical abuse. You complain about our ways? Fine, stay where you are. You don't have to interact with US citizens. Just remember, we might not be the best but we dam well are better then we were when the majority of us were like you.
1 / 5 (3) Aug 06, 2013
It is nice that it is recognized by one of the bloggers that family is dead in America. I hope I can live long enough to see what is the replacement of families. I want to see the American proposal to raise psychologically HEALTHY children without a family
So maury where you from? Come on, let people know there youre from so they can do a little research and show you how your culture is so much worse off.

Dont be shy.
In the meantime, the UK prohibit guns and violence goes down
Actually the UK is the most violent place in europe. Much more violent than the US per capita.

Perhaps you did not know this and so are just ignorant and not a liar.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 07, 2013
Only Americans thinks respect implies submission,

Incorrect. It is patriarchal cultures, like that discussed in the article, that equate submission with respect.
you EARN respect, so she is rude to everyone she does not know.

Respect must be earned or else it has no value. Because respect must be earned it rewards those who are nice to others, while those who are rude, like your ex, receive no respect from anyone. Thus it is an effective system.

What makes women "special"? why their suffering is intolerable?

All suffering is intolerable. Is it disgusting that you think only special people deserve a life free off suffering.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 07, 2013
I know, nothing will change "freedom".

The term "freedom"(tm) is meaningless marketing blurb - especially coming from countries that don't even have the freedoms that they purport to want to give to others.
My ex american wife keep saying you EARN respect

And she's right.
so she is rude to everyone she does not know

Which is inconsistent ofher. Otherwise how will she earn their respect?

Now they cut pornography and obviously it will improve their culture.....

On guns - I can understand why they banned them. There's a risk vs. freedom issue here. The right to have guns is pretty inconsequential - but the risk to own guns is pretty high.
But with pornography they're going overboard. That's something for personal or shared perusal and has no risk attached to it (other than kids growing up thinking that this is what sex is supposed to be like. But that's a problem of stupidity. And like with tobacco or alcohol the stupidity needs to be addressed)
1 / 5 (3) Aug 07, 2013
The term "freedom"(tm) is meaningless marketing blurb - especially coming from countries that don't even have the freedoms that they purport to want to give to others
I dunno. I think the freedom to walk around without having to wear a full-body bag, and of not having acid thrown in your face if you choose not to, is pretty basic. Also the freedom to refrain from having babies until it kills you if you so choose, is also a no-brainer.
but the risk to own guns is pretty high
Not as high as living without them. Ask the people in countries such as the UK where violent crime rates soared after the people were no longer able to defend themselves.

I would think that access to unbiased info untainted by propaganda would also be something preferable, eh? Although this IS the internet, where facts are somewhat easier to come by if one cares to look.
1 / 5 (2) Aug 08, 2013
I think that freedom from this sort of thing is good dont you?

"Two British women have had acid thrown in their faces in Zanzibar, police on the east African island say.
"Police said two men on a moped threw the acid at the women, splashing their faces, chests and hands as they walked through the streets of Stone Town, the old part of the island's capital Zanzibar City, which is a Unesco world heritage site...The BBC's Tulanana Bohela in Dar es Salaam says Islam is the main religion on Zanzibar and in more remote parts of the island, away from tourist beaches, there are signs asking foreigners to respect the local culture and cover up - in case skimpy outfits upset villagers."

"Campaigners in Pakistan say cases of acid attacks are increasing in most areas, even though tougher penalties were introduced last year.
"It is estimated that more than 150 women have acid thrown on them every year and many never get justice."

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