The ongoing dance between the U.S. government and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over whether or not Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is becoming a laughable farce or a comedy of errors, depending on the genre you prefer. However, if you happen to be a woman living in Afghanistan, there is nothing funny about it.
With the presidential elections scheduled for April and the pending withdrawal of U.S. military and NATO forces from Afghanistan by the end of December, the country is facing a considerable level of insecurity and fear associated with its post-2014 future that is negatively affecting the chances for a stable Afghanistan.
If civil war ensues, or the Taliban regain their hold on the country, the most vulnerable citizens of the Afghan population -- primarily its women and children -- will undoubtedly suffer the most. The specter of this possibility looms even greater now with the post-2014 presence of a residual U.S./NATO force remaining unclear given Karzai's refusal to sign the BSA.
But even as the planned drawdown of allied forces proceeds and the international community continues to lose visibility within the country, international allies can remain a catalyst for security, political, and economic progress in Afghanistan. The international community, for instance, can help the Afghan government ensure the transparency and fairness of the elections, upholding the gains that have been made over the past 12 years on behalf of Afghan women's rights.
Afghan women have come a long way since the fall of the Taliban regime. They have returned to work by the hundreds of thousands, many becoming business owners and entrepreneurs helping to shape a new, vibrant economy. Others are in civil service and are increasingly being drawn into national security institutions. Nearly 40 percent of the 8.6 million children who now attend school are girls; in 2001, only 900,000 boys attended Taliban-run schools.
Women make up 28 percent of the Afghan Parliament, occupying 68 seats -- that's more women than in the U.S. Congress -- and one quarter occupy seats in the Senate, or Upper House. (This may change though as in July 2013, a revised electoral law reduced the quota of 420 provincial council seats allotted to women from 25 percent to 20 percent.)
Afghan women are now present in many sectors: three government ministers, one vice presidential candidate, one mayor, one police chief, hundreds of police and army recruits, trained pilots, thousands of professionals, hundreds of journalists, and 40,000 young women pursuing degrees in higher education. Women also play major roles in Afghan industries, such as agriculture, jewelry, carpets, and embroidery; although they receive limited benefits as there are no employment laws in place to protect them. According to the World Bank, small and medium enterprises such as these are key economic drivers of Afghanistan's development. They constitute approximately 75 percent of the labor force and generate over 50 percent of GDP. However, female Afghan business owners struggle to obtain the capital, equipment, training, and technologies they need to grow their businesses.
Despite these challenges, there are a handful of successful Afghan women entrepreneurs, such as Hassina Syed, the founder and President of the Syed Group of Companies based in Kabul, who was the first female Afghan member of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the only woman to participate in the official trade delegation led by Karzai to Europe and Asia in 2009. Roya Mahboob, founder of Herat-based Citadel Software, is one of the most successful Internet entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, and has received international recognition for her multilingual blog, The Women's Annex, which provides women from the region with a high-profile, multi-media platform from which they can express themselves.
In order for businesswomen to succeed, the general public's perception has to change, and signs of such progress are visible across all sectors of society. The 2004 Afghan Constitution, for example, states that women and men are equal citizens with the same rights. None of this would have been possible without the international community and the United States' assistance, and more importantly, the incredible determination and courage of Afghan women to fight for their human rights and for a place in Afghan society. Many have paid with their lives.
But with the growing uncertainty about the future and in anticipation of a Taliban-style backlash, fear has spread among Afghans, leading to increased criticism of women in public spaces. More women are afraid to go to school and work, and girls are being held back from getting an education, especially in some of the more dangerous areas, by worried families.
The U.S. and NATO military withdrawal might trigger conflict or civil war if the political transition goes wrong, the Taliban extend their influence, or both. Afghans know only too well what this will mean for them. Afghan women and girls will suffer disproportionately if political insecurity and conflict erupt. To prevent this, the United States and international community must engage with Afghan politicians and civil society leaders to facilitate consensus governance and to keep pressure on the Afghan government to uphold all human rights.
Stalling this process not only harms the goodwill remaining between the United States and Afghanistan, but puts human rights and civil liberties at jeopardy as extremist groups, well entrenched in the region, push for a return to what many consider the dark ages for human rights. Afghan women and citizens have suffered tremendously during these many years of war and oppression, and we cannot allow their hopes for a stable and peaceful Afghanistan to be dashed.
As such, Karzai must sign the BSA, and the United States needs to patiently work with him -- and with his successor -- to protect the gains made by and on behalf of Afghan women, as desired by most Afghans.
Khorshied Samad, a former Fox News Channel television correspondent and Kabul Bureau Chief, is the Director of External Affairs Communications for The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia. She is an advocate for women's rights and socio-economic empowerment.