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Anatomy of a Crisis 003: The Oppression of Women Cripples Economy and Security
When the Taliban reinstated a ban on secondary education for girls on the same day schools were supposed to reopen, girls wept across Afghanistan. Student suicides were reported. The international community came together to resoundingly condemn the decision, lamenting the disruption of the future of a whole generation of girls. While the ban undoubtedly does cripple the futures of teenage Afghan girls, the truth is the entire country of Afghanistan will suffer because of women’s exclusion from the public sphere.
The argument for women’s rights is often reduced to an emotional discussion on morality, a line of thought believed to stand on its own merit. However, women’s loss of access to the public sphere is about more than morals. By excluding women, Afghanistan is losing up to $1 billion of their GDP, undermining peace and security, and hamstringing its development prospects. The costs are huge, and Afghanistan, already speeding toward a poverty rate of 97%, cannot afford it.
Ultimately, women’s rights are not a moral issue; they are a fundamental economic, security, and development issue. Without women’s active participation in society, Afghanistan has no viable future. But just how dramatic are the consequences?
The GDP suffers enormously when half the workforce is prohibited from contributing to their country’s productivity. Globally, gender discrimination in social institutions costs up to $12 trillion of global income. If discrimination was reduced, the rate at which annual global GDP is growing could increase almost 20 times over by 2030. This breaks down to countries on average losing about 15% of their GDP to gender gaps.
In Afghanistan, the poorest country in Asia, the effects on the population are devastating. Already at a staggeringly low annual per capita income of $500, a further reduction of 30% is expected this year alone, which is in part linked to the exclusion of women from the workforce. Households reliant on women’s income will suffer particularly; restrictive laws leave many families with no alternatives but to send their children out to sell cheap goods on the street in order to scrape together enough pocket change for life-sustaining bread. Lower household incomes lead to overall reduced consumer demand, which will result in a downward economic spiral.
Furthermore, as women leave the workforce, the supply of labor will sharply decline, even more dramatically in quality than quantity. Although women comprise less than 20% of the formal labor market in Afghanistan, women who obtain higher education and enter the workforce tend to self-select and on average be higher achievers, harder workers, and more productive than men at the same education level. In fact, the UN estimates that the economic impact of educating an Afghan girl is more than double the value of educating an Afghan boy.
Security and stability:
Ironically, women’s inclusion and empowerment may be the key to the Taliban remaining in power. Women’s participation in government is key to improving it, from restoring citizens’ trust, to promoting peace, to increasing the regime’s focus on issues critical to stability such as social welfare, legal protections, and transparency.
Women are particularly skilled at strengthening community engagement in security promotion. Women’s global role in reintegrating ex-combatants into their local communities is well known, and Afghan women are no different. They have successfully gotten local insurgents to the negotiating table, worked with schools and civil society to counter the proliferation of extremism, and collaborated with insurgents’ wives to get hostages released. Although all these actions took place when the Taliban were the insurgents, the women’s skill set and unique role in promoting peace and consensus remains. Just as they were key to the peace process between the Afghan Republic and the Taliban, they will be a central piece in getting the new Afghanistan secure and stable.
In fact, the strongest predictor of state security and peacefulness is not democracy, wealth, or culture, but women’s physical security. Fewer ISIS fighters come from states with more gender equality, and the risk of intrastate warfare is notably reduced. Giving women the respect they deserve does not just empower them; it creates a nationwide cultural shift away from norms of violence and oppression and toward true, far-reaching inclusivity and peace.
Beyond economic development, oppressing women is detrimental to human development, which is defined by the UN as “whether people are able to “be” and “do” desirable things in life.” It is critical to the health, happiness, and prosperity of populations and includes everything from being well fed, sheltered, and healthy to having the right to work, education, vote, and participate in public life. Human development is critical to examine when considering quality of life and overall development.
Investing in women, especially their education, is known for being one of the highest return investments in development. The effects extend far beyond the economy and into human development. Research shows better educated women give birth to fewer children, marry at a later age, and invest more into the education of their children, leading to a development multiplier effect. Population growth would slow, and over time demographics would transform, enabling the benefits from the demographic dividend to take effect.
Furthermore, more educated women with a degree of financial autonomy make their families—and by extension societies—substantially healthier. Research shows that maternal income increases family nutrition by more than 4-7 times and child survival more than 20 times compared to paternal income. This results in drastically reduced maternal mortality, under-five mortality, and stunting. Adults’ lifespans are increased too, providing better returns for investment. During the 20 years of intense development between Taliban regimes, life expectancy increased 10 years. A more equal Afghanistan would be healthier and better enabled to move toward achieving its full development potential.
Finally, women’s exclusion from the workforce and reduced access to education impedes the economy in more ways than GDP and profits. Entire industries are crippled, less educated, and understaffed. The quality of services is drastically reduced. A gaping hole was left in Afghan society when the thousands of women who were employed as healthcare workers and doctors, journalists, civil society members, activists, judges, lawyers, police, army personnel, and entrepreneurs were forced back into their homes. There were 80,000 women instructors at universities alone, almost all of whom did not return to work. That is now tens of thousands of classrooms that cannot function the same. The government is similarly crippled, having fired most of the 25% of their employees who were women. Afghan society simply cannot function fully without women’s involvement.
The sentiment that women are key to Afghanistan’s future is not new—but the hard facts don’t always accompany the argument. However, this is so much more than a moral issue. The bottom line is that without women’s reintegration into society, the economy will grow more slowly and never reach its potential, the security situation will remain unstable and any peace will be temporary, and development will be hamstrung. Without Afghan women, there is no Afghan future.