America Never Gave Afghan Women a Chance

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy, in partnership with The Fuller Project, on January 31st, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Sophia Jones and Editor-in-Chief Christina Asquith.

An 11-year-old girl cares for her mother as she receives her first dose of chemotherapy at Jamhuriat Hospital in Kabul on July 15, 2017. When 38-year-old Fatema was diagnosed with breast cancer, it took her seven months to gather the money needed for her surgery, and she was forced to delay follow-up treatment until she could borrow money to pay for it. (Kiana Hayeri for Foreign Policy)

Washington failed at the most promising path toward stability in Afghanistan: keeping the country’s women alive.

KABUL—Parwin is dying from cancer, her time running out. There is no radiation available, and chemotherapy might not save her. But it isn’t just her life she’s worried about—it’s the future of her daughter Fatema, who had planned to go to college to become a midwife.

If Parwin dies of breast cancer, her husband will likely pull Fatema out of school and marry her off. One less mouth to feed for their struggling family. One less mother to keep the family together. One less midwife trained.

Parwin’s story is one of thousands just like it in Afghanistan, where the cost of women dying isn’t just a medical problem that hurts families—it’s a destabilizing force that weakens the country as a whole. And with the Taliban negotiating for an ascent to power, it’s time to recognize the critical connection between women’s health and national security.

U.S. officials announced Monday that they had tentatively agreed to the early stages of a plan to withdraw all U.S. troops if the Taliban agreed to keep Afghanistan from “becoming a platform for international terrorist groups,” among other concessions, U.S. diplomat and lead negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad told the New York Times. But while there is a desperate desire for peace after decades of bloodshed, Afghans—particularly Afghan women, who are not yet part of the negotiations—worry that hard-won rights and delicate advancements will be rolled back as a consequence of a hasty U.S. exit ordered by President Donald Trump. And then there are the advancements that have yet to occur.

Despite the United States having spent more than $132 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, and an estimated $800 billion on warfighting, the Taliban control more territory now than in 2001. There have been notable improvements in medicine, education, and justice since the days of Taliban rule—a grim baseline from which to measure success—but thousands of Afghans across the country still lack access to the basics. Death during pregnancy and childbirth and breast cancer are still the two leading killers of Afghan women. For women like Parwin, the reality is that Afghanistan still has only one oncologist for the entire nation. This all raises the question: Had the United States invested more in women’s health—and women, generally—would it be leaving behind a nation on a much stronger footing?

What if, 17 years ago, the United States had decided that women were the key to stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan, as a growing body of evidence suggests? The United States only spent a drop of the war’s budget on efforts to improve women’s health, economic stability, and good governance programs. “I have no idea why Afghan women’s health concerns aren’t taken seriously by the international community,” said Belquis Ahmadi, a senior program officer with the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan program. “If I were a donor agency, that would’ve been top of my list of priorities.”

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