Afghanistan's presidential election season has been in full swing for the past two months. In a sign of genuine political progress, the government recently began accepting nominations for candidates to succeed current President Hamid Karzai. This process started just weeks after the nation's Assembly passed legislation providing a legal framework for the presidential, provincial council, and parliamentary elections.Nothing is more important for Afghanistan than building on the liberalizing achievements of the past decade and preventing a slide back toward repression. One of the major aims of this effort needs to be retaining and expanding the hard-won rights of Afghan women. Gender equality isn't just a matter of moral fairness -- it's essential to the country's economic and political health and to ensuring the nation has a secure, peaceful, and stable future. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women have enjoyed a significant expansion in their rights. The country's current constitution affords equal protection to men and women, guaranteeing women the right to education, political participation, and economic opportunity. Afghan women are now employed at jobs ranging from doctor to police officer -- an unthinkable situation under the Taliban. And a recent Oxfam report found that school enrollment among girls has increased from roughly 5,000 to 2.4 million. These are encouraging developments. But there is so much more progress to be made. Afghan women are still the targets of institutional discrimination and gender-based violence. Over the last half of 2013, two consecutive Ministry of Women's Affairs chiefs were assassinated. Just this August, female parliamentarian Fariba Ahmadi Kakar was kidnapped by Taliban militants. A few days later, the vehicle envoy of female senator Roh Guhl Khairzad was ambushed, leading to the death of her eight-year-old daughter. And in mid-September, Afghanistan's top female police officer was shot as she left her home. This violence is organized -- and on purpose. Sima Samar, head of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan, has noted that by targeting high-profile women, the Taliban seeks to "limit the active presence and activities of women in their society." A new United Nations report finds that in the first six months of 2013, the deaths of women and children jumped 38 percent compared to the same period last year. American forces will be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of next year. It's absolutely imperative that their exit not precipitate a backslide. The country's government must be expected to keep its commitments to women and girls. At its most basic level, gender equality is about affirming human dignity. But this issue is also essential to the political, economic, and social success of a nation more generally. And securing gender equality starts with improving access to education. The statistics tell the story. Educated women are less likely to die during childbirth and more likely to send their own children to school. Mortality rates for children under five are 50 percent lower for mothers who have attended primary school. These facts shouldn't be surprising. Education is a basic human right and its impact is transformative in any society. Educated women are major contributors to Afghanistan's economy. Each additional year of primary school improves a woman's earning potential by 10 to 20 percent. Educated women are also far more likely to invest in their children, who then grow up to be the educated young citizens essential to sustained economic growth. Women also provide an indispensable voice in political institutions. Here in the United States, after gaining the right to vote, women drew attention to underappreciated issues like maternal health and childcare. The resulting policy shifts are linked to an eight to ten percent reduction in child mortality rates. In Afghanistan, female participation is essential to the nation's future. They are a critical force for human rights, reconciliation, and the rebuilding of their society. Given the enormous challenges that Afghanistan faces in the coming years, the country cannot afford to regress back to a system in which some of its brightest minds are left out of the political process - or any part of society. Afghanistan's elections and the impending withdrawal of American troops mark a new era in the country's development. The international community must work to ensure that women's gains in recent years are protected, and that Afghan women continue to make political and economic progress. Any future support for the country's government must be explicitly tied to continued defense of equal rights -- and continued progress of female citizens. Afghan women have already engaged in acts of astonishing bravery to win their rights. And they continue to risk their lives -- and the lives of their families -- everyday to stand up for basic human values. They face real danger. Their success requires both that the Afghan government honor its commitments to universal rights and that the international community continue to lend support to their leadership. We must not abandon the women of Afghanistan. If the nation's women are abandoned, any possibility of peace and prosperity could vanish. Paula J. Dobriansky, Ph.D., is former Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. Melanne S. Verveer is former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.
********** Published: Nov. 21, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 32