Three shots ring out in close succession, and the woman’s shawl-shrouded body slumps to the ground. Whoops, cheers and praise to Allah follow another four shots into her inert form. The latest video footage to come out of Afghanistan purports to show the execution of an allegedly adulterous woman at the hands of the Taliban. The video, filmed last month on a mobile phone and obtained by Reuters, is shocking. But even more atrocious is the fact that such incidents are on the rise in Afghanistan, from Taliban executions to gruesome punishments like cutting off noses and ears, whippings and the forced amputations of hands for accusations of theft. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission notes that cases of extreme violence against women are on the rise — some are Taliban-inflicted, but many are simply eruptions of ancient forms of tribal justice unchecked by Afghan society and the government. The Taliban, after all, based their extreme edicts not just on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law but also on tribal traditions that predate Islam. This latest video, as many have pointed out, supposedly presages the fate of Afghanistan’s women when foreign troops pull out over the next 2½ years. But the fact that such punishments continue to be meted out even with some 100,000 foreign troops still on the ground in Afghanistan is an indication that when it comes to women’s rights at least, the 11-year experiment in nation building has come to very little. And that has less to do with the commitment to women than with the weak support for education across the board.
Sure, more than 3 million Afghan girls are in school today, more than ever before in the history of Afghanistan, up from nearly zero in 2000. But few of those girls go on to secondary school, and those who do are usually in the urban areas. Rural Afghanistan, as evinced by the video, has changed little. That execution took place in Shinwari district, about an hour’s drive from the paved roads and glass-fronted office blocks of Kabul, but centuries away in terms of development.
Of course, the video’s release couldn’t have been more timely: it came out the same day as a major donors’ meeting in Tokyo, where more than 70 nations pledged $16 billion in Afghan development aid over the next four years. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to stand by Afghanistan’s women in her statement, telling conferencegoers, “The United States believes strongly that no nation can achieve peace, stability and economic growth if half the population is not empowered.” The way forward, she said, “must include fighting corruption, improving governance, strengthening the rule of law [and] increasing access to economic opportunity for all Afghans, especially for women.” She added that U.S. President Barack Obama would be asking Congress to keep American civilian assistance to Afghanistan near current levels well into 2017. That may be a difficult sell in a country grown weary of its outsize financial commitment to Afghanistan over the past decade, especially when it seems to have achieved so little.
But of the estimated $545 billion the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan, very little has gone to the kind of programs that would make an enduring difference in women’s lives, like high school and university education. Economic-empowerment schemes for women, from handicrafts-training to agricultural programs, may look good to taxpayers back home, but they aren’t sustainable, and the projects dry up as soon as the money does. According to Agence France-Presse, the U.S. says it has contributed some $316 million to teacher-training programs and that out of the 175,000 teachers in Afghanistan, about a third of them are women. Frankly, that’s not enough teachers, nor female teachers, for 12.6 million children under the age of 14. The U.N. Girls’ Education Initiative estimates that only 18% of women ages 15-24 can read, compared with 50% for men in the same age group. Clinton can speak all she wants about a commitment to women’s rights, but it won’t mean much until Afghan women can speak for themselves. And they won’t be able to do that without education.
An ongoing international commitment to rule of law, economic development and security will be necessary to stabilize Afghanistan once foreign forces leave. But none of that will have much long-term impact if education is not made a priority. So if any good is to come from the latest horror to emerge from Afghanistan, let it not take the form of a futile rage over the barbaric acts of ignorant men, but rather a renewed commitment to educating men, and women, about their basic human rights.