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In Afghanistan, women strive to hold onto their rights

By Oxfam
In this classroom in a makeshift school in Parwan Province, the 36 girls have dreams of becoming doctors and engineers. Only three of them have mothers who had the opportunity to learn to read and write. Photo: Nick Danziger/Oxfam

Women are in danger of losing gains made since the fall of the Taliban.

At 29, Rangina Karga is proof of just how far some Afghan women have come since the fall of the Taliban. The youngest sitting member in the Afghan parliament—male or female—Karga is a master’s degree student, lawmaker, and mother, fighting for the development of Afghanistan and the protection of Afghan women.

But what lies ahead for them is a cause of deep concern for Karga.

In a new report, "Behind Closed Doors," Oxfam reveals the consistent exclusion of women from Afghanistan’s peace talks—a degree of discrimination that compromises the country’s development and threatens the sustainability of its peace.

“With the help of international aid and support, many Afghan women have made enormous changes in their lives in the last decade,” said John Watt, Oxfam’s country director for Afghanistan. “Women are working as doctors, police chiefs, members of parliament, and teachers. A record number of girls are in school. But millions more women in rural and isolated areas have not seen any changes.”

As international forces leave, the risk of a drop in aid that helped protect the gains and rights Afghan women have fought so hard for is a real one.

“If we are ignored now, life will return to how it was before,” says Karga. “We need to maintain an active role in government, not just a symbolic role.”

Watt says Oxfam knows, from the work it does in villages, just how fragile women’s rights are.

“With new peace talks just around the corner, it’s time for the Afghan government and Western allies to once again champion women’s leading role in Afghanistan’s future,” her says. “They cannot fail them now and decide their future behind closed doors.”

Karga’s story  

“It is important that women are listened to. After all, women and children are the most vulnerable in war.” - Rangina Karga, 29, the youngest sitting member in the Afghan parliament—male or female. Photo: Lalage Snow/Oxfam

Karga and her family stayed in Afghanistan throughout the wars and during the Taliban regime. They celebrated as international forces came to Kabul and the Taliban fell.

“When the Taliban left, I thought we would all be happy. We welcomed the people that came from foreign governments. We hoped that they would bring positive changes to our lives,” Karga says over tea in her home on the outskirts or Kabul.

Karga has become a trailblazer for Afghan women. She represents them in parliament, despite the risks, and takes all the opportunities she can to make the most of the freedoms she has.  But it has not been easy for all Afghan women.

“As soon as I was old enough, I ran for parliament,” she says. “I knew women who had freedoms too, who could study again, or work. But then they got married and their husband or their husband’s families have not allowed them to continue. It really hurts me to see these bright women who had so much potential lose their dreams.”

Still, Karga says life for some women has changed.

“We have women in parliament now – talented women – and were supported in laws benefiting women. It is important that women are listened to.  After all, women and children are the most vulnerable in war,” she says.

Despite these changes, Rangina is worried about the challenges ahead for Afghan women. Many of them still live with insecurity and conservatism, which makes changing their lives far more difficult.

“We must fight. We must carry on being active women and help those women who live in the provinces,” says Karga. “Some of those women don’t even know that they have rights. Those are the women who still need our help.”