Life as an Afghan woman

cropped-Afghanistan-resize.jpgAfghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman:

Many women die in pregnancy and childbirth: 460 deaths/100,000 live births (2010)

85% of women have no formal education and are illiterate.

Female 3rd level students as a % of Total:   18.0%

Total live births per woman –  average of 6

1 out 10 children die before their fifth birthday.

Life expectancy for women is 51.

Data Sources:

UN Data
CIA World Fact Book
Afghanistan Relief Organization

The only good news is that that these statistics have substantially improved in the last few years.


“The Best and Worst Places for Women”

In 2011 Newsweek/The Daily Beast analyzed dozens of data points for 165 countries to determine which countries offer women the most expansive rights and the best quality of life.

Below are the results for Afghanistan:

Score:  164 (out of 165) –  Afghanistan
Overall score (out of 100): 2.0
Justice: 8.4
Health: 2.0
Education: 41.1
Economics: 55.3
Politics: 16.6

compare this with its neighbor ..

Score 125, Iran
Overall score (out of 100): 50.1
Justice: 54.9
Health: 77.9
Education: 76.8
Economics: 62.2
Politics: 12.1

What causes such difficulties for Afghan women?

–   Child marriage: More than 50% of Afghan girls are married or engaged by 12.

Almost 60% of girls are married by 16. Women activists say up to 80 percent of marriages in poor rural areas are either forced or arranged.

Most girls marry far older men — some in their 60s — whom they meet for the first time at their wedding.

A lack of security from three decades of war, and the risk of kidnapping and rape, has also prompted many families to force their young daughters into marriage.

Some girls are bartered into marriage to repay debt or resolve a dispute. And widespread poverty still compels many parents to get their daughters married to avoid the cost of caring for them. Older, wealthier husbands will pay a larger bride-price for a girl.

burqa child rice2–   The implications of child marriage cannot be underestimated.

Married girls do not continue their education and remain illiterate.

They have babies while still young teenagers, increasing health problems and risking death for themselves and their children (the risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth for girls under 14 is five times higher than for adult women).

In Kabul, it is not uncommon for young girls to be admitted to hospitals shortly after marriage in a state of shock from serious physical injuries—tearing and extensive bleeding—and psychological trauma. Young wives also have low status in the family and are more likely to be abused by their husbands and/or in-laws.

Girl with hair strand

–   Lack of education: Only 40% of Afghan girls attend elementary school, and only one in 20 girls attend school beyond the sixth grade.

There are approximately three times more boys attending school than girls.

Many Afghan families will only permit their daughters to attend all-girls schools close to home and few such schools exist. Other families believe it is unnecessary for girls to be educated. Schools for girls have been burned down, hundreds of teachers educating girls have been threatened or killed, and girls and have been physically harmed while attending or walking to or from school.

–   Few options for widows. Afghanistan has 1.5 million widows, one of the highest proportions in the world.

Many men were killed in the armed conflicts, and older husbands are likely to die sooner than their child brides.

The average age of an Afghan widow is 35, and 94% of them are illiterate. Most of them have more than four children to support.

While many widows with children will continue to be cared for by their husband’s family (marriage to surviving brothers is common), it is not always possible. Widows without male protection have few options and many are forced to beg or engage in prostitution.

What other difficulties do girls and women face?

Burqa line–   Hidden and isolated. Islamic extremists insist women and girls stay at home, and can only leave if they are fully covered and accompanied by a male relative.

In the cities most women wear a burqa that completely covers them. The fact that girls live with their husband’s extended family often results in them being treated like servants or slaves, compounding their isolation.

–   Few economic opportunities. A culture prohibiting women to appear in public combined with a widespread lack of education mean women enjoy few economic opportunities.

In general, women are confined to housework. Education is the best strategy to liberate women from male domination.

–   Women’s legal standing is limited. According to Sharia law, a female’s testimony is worth ½ that of a man. In custody cases, children will usually be awarded to the father or grandfather.

So divorce—even in extreme abuse cases—is less likely to be sought, because a woman must be prepared to lose her children.

These discriminatory practices against women are pervasive, occurring across ethnic groups in both rural and urban areas.

Many Afghans, including some religious leaders, reinforce harmful customs by invoking their interpretation of Islam. In most cases, however, these practices are inconsistent with Sharia law as well as Afghan and international law.

Hasn’t life improved since the Taliban were deposed?Burqa women fence

–   During the rule of the Taliban (1996 – 2001), women were treated worse than during any other leadership in the history of Afghanistan. They were forbidden to work, to leave the house without a male escort, to seek medical help from a male doctor.

Under the Taliban regime, women were also forced to cover themselves completely from head to toe, even covering their eyes. Women who were doctors and teachers suddenly were forced to be beggars and even prostitutes in order to feed their families. Women accused of prostitution were publicly stoned to death in the soccer stadium in Kabul.

–   Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, women have gained political rights. The recently adopted Afghan constitution states that “the citizens of Afghanistan –whether man or woman—have equal rights and duties before the law.”

Women even have been appointed to prominent positions in the government.

–   While the Afghan government and international community are working for women’s rights, since most women are illiterate, they are not engaged in the process. Thus the government has reduced women’s rights when it feels it is politically expedient: In February 2009 President Karzai signed a law which affects several key rights of Afghan Shi’a women:

* Denies women the right to leave their homes except for “legitimate” purposes;
* Forbids women from working or receiving education without their husbands’ express permission;
* Explicitly permits marital rape;
* Diminishes the right of mothers to be their children’s guardians in the event of a divorce;
* And makes it impossible for wives to inherit houses and land from their husbands – even though husbands may inherit immoveable property from their wives.

While this law only applies to Shi’a (less than 20% of women), the fact that such a draconian law was passed at all indicates how easily women’s rights can be bargained away if women are still illiterate and isolated.

–   Girl’s education has improved. Since 2002, the number of girls attending school increased by over 30 percent; however, an estimated 1.5 million school-age girls are still not enrolled in classes.

UNICEF reported that 34 percent of children enrolled in school are girls, although this figure hides large disparities from province to province, with enrollment as low as 15 percent in some areas.

–   Child marriage is more difficult. The Afghan government recently changed the legal age for marriage for girls from 16 to 17. Men who want to marry girls under 17 are not entitled to obtain a marriage certificate, although many men simply do not bother with officially registering their marriages.  However, it seems that fewer girls are getting married.

–   Women can be employed, but only if their male relatives permit it. But with high unemployment rates, some feel employing women takes jobs from men.

–   While more girls and women are getting an education and are free to move about, families may not be willing to take the risk.

Extremists still believe that if girls are visible outside the home, they lose respect and are at risk of dishonoring the family. Engaged or married girls, even if they are young, are often kept behind closed doors.

–   Self-immolation (setting oneself on fire) has decreased from 350 cases per year in Herat province to 70 cases per year after a government education campaign. (Young abused wives often feel they have no way out but self-immolation.)

–   Fewer children die before age 5.  Child mortality has been decreased by half!  Though the rate is still high, improvements in access to clean water, electricity and sanitation, as well as better educated mothers, have helped the save the lives of thousands of Afghan women.  

Though these gains for girls and women may seem small from an American perspective, they are real.

All change—if it is to be permanent–cannot be imposed by Western outsiders on this tribal, Islamic, post-conflict society. It has to emerge through education within the context of the culture. We help girls get the education they so desperately want, as well as help educate the boys.

Educated men are much more likely to support more choices for women. Educated husbands appreciate and are less threatened by their educated partners. See Our work: Schools

27 Responses to “Life as an Afghan woman”


  1. Afghan Women: The Half Forgotten of the Society | Asian Press Institute - March 7, 2014

    […] Afghan women face the most number of challenges []. During the recent past Afghanistan had more than 100 raped, and beheaded cases of Afghan Women […]

  2. 9 Women Who Are Taking The Lead In Places Where Men Rule - March 25, 2014

    […] In Afghanistan, where only 1 in 20 girls attend school past 6th grade, Roya Mahboob is using technology to reach out to local women and has earned her place as one of […]

  3. Malala Yousafzai: il coraggio concreto di voler cambiare il mondo | Lorenzo Piersantelli - October 31, 2014

    […] , , […]

  4. Female Prostitution in Afghanistan | The Red Link- The Trafficking of Afghan Children - November 11, 2014

    […] 60% of women are married by the age of 16, and almost 80% of those marriages were arranged or forced. Many young girls are forced into marriage to pay of debt, and are then at the mercy of their […]

  5. A Brighter Future For Afghan Women? | W.I.T Women In It - November 14, 2014

    […] still face serious issues. In a country that has been described by many organizations as one of the worst places for women worldwide, the challenges ahead are substantial. Child marriage, lack of education, lack of […]

  6. Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez (chapter book) | Mrs. Martin's Library Suggestions - December 10, 2014

    […] Life as an Afghan women data […]

  7. Afghanistan and Education - Omega International - December 11, 2014

    […] women is widespread throughout the institutions of Afghanistan and is certainly demonstrable with statistics regarding education. Only forty percent of Afghan girls attend elementary schools, and one in […]

  8. » Why are Domestic Violence Rates Increasing in Women? - April 12, 2015

    […] In the beliefs of Afghanistan culture, a woman testimony is only worth 1/2 that of a man. (See related article here.) […]

  9. MassDecides · Niki Tsongas Meets with President of Afghanistan - April 20, 2015

    […] towards the empowerment of Afghan women socially and economically are certainly not unwarranted. Nearly 85% of women in Afghanistan receive no formal education and have a life expectancy of roughly…. These facts coupled with the diminished economic opportunities for women stemming from the […]

  10. Masume Rezai – One of Many | Whitworth reporting class blog - May 13, 2015

    […] illiterate, uneducated, without a job, a familiar story for many Afghan women. According to the Trust in Education website, Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman. 85% of women […]

  11. Quora - May 21, 2015

    What is it like to be a woman in Afghanistan?

    Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman: Many women die in pregnancy and childbirth: 460 deaths/100,000 live births (2010) 85% of women have no formal education and are illiterate. Female 3rd level students as a % o…

  12. Childbirth, Pregnancy, & Children | afghanwomensrights - May 28, 2015

    […] Information from: […]

  13. Married Life | afghanwomensrights - May 28, 2015

    […] Information from: […]

  14. Meet the woman fighting sexist Afghan circumstance with guerilla style politics - July 26, 2015

    […] is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman. Eighty-five per cent of women have no formal education and are illiterate. More than […]

  15. When I realized being 15-years old wasn't too bad after all - The Rebel Indian - October 27, 2015

    […] In Afghanistan, ranked the worst country in the world to be born a girl, some parents are bringing up their daughters as sons, which is an extreme privilege in a country where being a girl is nothing but misery. In Afghanistan, the average life expectancy of a woman is 44 years, the mother of a newborn girl is often greeted with disappointment for not having brought a son into the world and more than 50% of the girls are married or engaged by the age of 15. […]

  16. The Married Life of Afghanistani Women | uiwomenscenter - October 29, 2015

    […] At an early age, usually between 12 and 16, many girls are engaged and even married and up to 80% of these marriages are in poor rural areas where they are either forced or the marriage has been arranged. There are […]

  17. A Source of Information | Writing to Discover - November 2, 2015

    […] […]

  18. From child bride to rapper, Sonita Alizadeh breaks the shackles of child marriage in Afghanistan | Adelaide Hayes - November 12, 2015

    […] consent to a marriage, more than half of Afghanistan’s girls are either engaged or married by the time they reach the age of 12. Around 60 per cent of girls are married off by the time they hit their […]

  19. Quora - November 29, 2015

    What are the genuine flaws in Islam, if any?

    Little or No Respect and Equality for women in Islam: Just today there is news published which says Kerala Muslim leader calls gender equality ‘un-Islamic’ > Musalyar, the chief of All India Sunni Jamiyyathul Ulama, said on Saturday that women do not h…

  20. Quora - November 29, 2015

    Do educated people tend to marry at a later age? Why?

    People who are educated tend to marry later, this is evident in the position of women in a particular society. In a society where there are high numbers of women who are illiterate, there tends to be a higher number of them who marry at an earlier age.…

  21. A Source of Information | Writing to Discover - December 1, 2015

    […] Source:  […]

  22. Mon Jan 11 | Women in Society - January 11, 2016

    […] Read  Restrictions Imposed by Taliban on Women in Afghanistan and Life as an Afghan Woman […]

  23. Championed By First Lady Rula Ghani, Afghanistan Is Set To Open Its First Women's University - GirlTalkHQ - February 5, 2016

    […] of girls are still prevented from attending primary school, driving the female literacy rate down to a low 20% nationally for women between the ages of 15-24. For the schools that do exist, 50% of them lack adequate […]

  24. Afghan women need the support of US forces now more than ever - American Guardian - February 10, 2016

    […] women face challenges nearly unheard of in the developed world. Thousands per year die during childbirth, and an Afghan […]

  25. Possible Secondary Sources | A Thousand Splendid Suns - February 13, 2016

    […] […]

  26. Life For Women In Afghanistan | Life Begins At - February 29, 2016

    […] All change—if it is to be permanent–cannot be imposed by Western outsiders on this tribal, Islamic, post-conflict society. It has to emerge through education within the context of the culture. (source […]

Leave a Reply