Afghanistan: Amnesty International lauds war and occupation as 'progress' for women

The bitter reality for Afghan women: an address by Malalai Joya.

By Tim Anderson

May 20, 2012 -- Stop the War Coalition, Sydney -- Amnesty International has muddied the waters over the occupation of Afghanistan with its latest campaign urging NATO to “keep the progress going” on women’s rights. The campaign was aimed at a NATO summit in Chicago and drew on one of the few remaining arguments for continued military occupation of that war-ravaged country.

The idea that a military occupation would somehow help Afghan women was promoted by Laura Bush, wife of the former US president who ordered the October 2001 invasion. It is an argument that been rejected by the Afghan women’s group, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and by activist and former Afghan MP Malalai Joya (see video above). They say that the NATO occupation has simply added a third enemy, on top of the Taliban and the NATO-backed warlords.

Amnesty International pleads: "NATO: Keep the progress going!"

Amnesty was forced onto the back foot almost immediately by protests over its posters, which read “NATO: keep the progress going”. Many thought this appeared an endorsement of the occupation.

Amnesty USA (as the US branch likes to be known) tried to redirect attention to what it said was its main aim: that the US and NATO should (in the words of Hillary Clinton) “not abandon women”. This was the theme of an article earlier in the year, when the group’s policy director Cristina Finch attacked NATO’s “peace talks” with the Taliban.

The Amnesty argument was that NATO should "defend and extend" the women’s rights that have been achieved under 10 years of occupation. Amnesty staffer Jungwon Kim referred to “significant but tenuous gains Afghan women have made over the past decade”.

This in turn linked back the Finch article, which suggested “modest advances in human rights for women and girls had been made in Afghanistan during the past ten years of US occupation”. These were said to be in the areas of girls in school, new laws against gender-based violence and a quota for women in parliament.

Another Amnesty official, Vienna Colucci, defending the group’s “NATO: keep the progress going” posters, claimed: “Today, three million girls go to school, compared to virtually none under the Taliban. Women make up 20% of university graduates. Maternal mortality and infant mortality have declined  … this is what we mean by progress: the gains Afghan women have struggled to achieve over the past decade.”

Reference to the “struggle” does not hide the implication: that any gains were backed by a military occupation.

There was no source for these claims, but they appear to come almost word for word from an article by Khorshied Samad posted on a Fox News site. Samad is Afghan born, a Washington-based “strategic affairs analyst” and her husband has been an Afghan diplomat under the Hamid Karzai regime. It seems more likely that Colucci copied Samad, than the other way around.

Maternal mortality

I took a particular interest in Amnesty’s claim that maternal mortality has fallen under the occupation. I have studied maternal mortality and all the recent data put Afghanistan as the worst or equal worst on Earth. Was there any basis for the assertion that “maternal mortality and infant mortality have declined” under the occupation?

Maternal mortality is undoubtedly an important indicator. As a key human development measure it has been listed country-wise since 1990 in the UNDP’s Human Development Reports. It is also included as the fifth of eight goals in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The first part of MDG 5 is to reduce maternal mortality, the second part addresses the principal means of doing this, such as improving ante-natal care and ensuring the presence of a skilled assistant at birth.

There is a “natural” rate of maternal mortality, suggested as about 1500 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies (one every 67 pregnancies). This is roughly the rate of deaths that occur when there is no skilled birth assistant, such as a midwife, doctor or a specialist nurse. These assistants can prevent most deaths that occur by bleeding, infection, shock and obstruction (Van Lerberghe and De Brouwere 2001).

The worst outcomes in the world, rates of more than 1000, have been in Afghanistan and in several Sub-Saharan African countries: Chad, Guinea-Bisseau, Sierra Leone and Somalia. The UNDP (2012) notes that all countries have made some progress since 1990, but remain extremely high. Afghanistan began the worst, got no better under the Taliban, and remains the worst.

Table 1: Maternal mortality – highest rates, 1990-2008

The Amnesty (Finch) article refers to UNICEF data which lists Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate (adjusted) at 1400: the worst in the world. So where is the "decline"? On the consensus of latest data available (I will come to the exception posed by WHO-World Bank data), it seems that Afghanistan remains the worst in the world, despite some slight improvements.

Table 2: Maternal mortality – highest rates, latest available data

The reasons for this are not too hard to see. The WHO reports Afghanistan as having the lowest levels of births attended by skilled assistants, among those five worst performing countries. Table 3 shows that only about one in seven Afghan women get such assistance, and that ante-natal care could not be calculated. None of the African countries had such poor levels of birth care.

 Table 3: Maternal health care

However a distinct data set, produced by the WHO along with the Washington-based World Bank and some US academics has challenged all that. If we are to believe these figures, Afghanistan has made the 25th best progress in reducing maternal mortality over 1990-2010, a period which covers both the Taliban administration and the US-NATO occupation. The rate is said to have fallen by 65%, from 1300 to 460. The most dramatic improvements are suggested as in the pre-Taliban (Northern Alliance period) and under the occupation. Afghanistan, according this data, has raced ahead of the African countries.

Table 4: Maternal mortality rates revised – WHO-World Bank et al, 2012

But how credible is this WHO-World Bank report?  

So far, all the key UN agencies (UNDP, WHO and UNICEF) maintain Afghanistan’s rate at 1400, rather than 460. The WHO-World Bank team say they “consulted” with government teams from each country to adjust their data. They say that in many countries (including Afghanistan) where there was no good civil registry data, they had resort to “other” national data. There is no other specific explanation of how the Afghan data came to be revised down this far.

The direct US government links (the US dominates the World Bank) are reason for concern over this study, as the legitimacy of the US military occupation in Afghanistan now depends significantly on claims (such as those made by Amnesty USA) that it is delivering benefits to Afghan women.

Given this conflict of interest and the lack of particular explanation for the “fall”, I suggest that, until and unless the key UN agencies (WHO, UNDP, UNICEF) adopt this revised data, it should be treated with suspicion and set aside in favour of the UN-published data.

That means that, despite some limited progress over the past two decades, the best data tells us that Afghanistan maintains the worst maternal mortality rate in the world (1400 per 100,000 pregnancies), a rate not very far from the “natural” rate.

This data is corroborated by the extremely low levels of skilled assistance available to mothers at birth. The billions of dollars spent on a military occupation (and many thousands of deaths of person other than mothers) do not seem to have increased Afghanistan’s rural midwives and doctors.


Amnesty USA (2012), "Shadow Summit for Afghan Women’s Rights", May 20, online at

Colucci, Vienna (2012), "We Get It", May 19, Amnesty USA, online at

Finch, Cristina (2012), "US: Don’t Abandon Afghan Women", March 8, Amnesty USA, online at

Kim, Jungwon (2012), "Afghan Women to NATO: Don’t Bargain Our Rights Away", Amnesty USA, May 15, online at

Samad, Khorshied (2012), "What the NATO Summit could mean for Afghanistan’s women", Fox News, May 19, online

UNDP (2011), Human Development Report, online

UNDP (2012), "International Human Development Indicators: maternal mortality ratio", online:

UNICEF (2012), Afghanistan: statistics, online:

Van Lerberghe, Wim and Vincent De Brouwere (2001), "Of blind alleys and things that have worked: history’s lessons on reducing maternal mortality", Studies in Health Services Organisation & Policy, 17, 2001, online:

WHO, World Bank, UNFPA, UNICEF (2012), "Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2010’, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank estimates", online:

WHO (2012), "Afghanistan: health profile", online at:


By Sahar Saba

Viewpoint (

When Taliban rose to power, one US diplomat justified Washington’s tacit support: ‘Taliban will develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that’

The NATO summit held at Chicago May 20-21, was preceded by a controversy generated by Amnesty International’s poster-campaign aimed at NATO-summit. “NATO: Keep the progress going” reads the Amnesty poster.

When criticized, Amnesty USA issued a clarification (excerpt): “Some are asking, is Amnesty now a cheerleader for NATO?  Does Amnesty support the war?  What was Amnesty thinking?! The shadow summit — and the poster — is directed at NATO, not to praise it, but to remind the leaders who will be discussing Afghanistan’s future this weekend about what is really at stake if women’s rights to security, political participation and justice are traded away or compromised.

We were thinking about the hard won gains Afghan women have made since the fall of the Taliban.  Ten years ago, Afghanistan had one of the worst human rights records in the world in terms of women’s and girls’ rights. The Taliban banned women from working, going to school or even leaving home without a male relative.

Today, three million girls go to school, compared to virtually none under the Taliban. Women make up 20 percent of university graduates. Maternal mortality and infant mortality have declined. Ten percent of all prosecutors and judges are women, compared to none under the Taliban regime.  This is what we meant by progress: the gains Afghan women have struggled to achieve over the past decade” [full text at:].

Flawed argument:

No doubt, Afghan women now enjoy freedoms in certain parts unheard of under Taliban. But, firstly, a comparison with Taliban-era is a false analogy. Even in the early 1990s, large numbers of Afghan women in urban centers participated in the public life. Afghanistan’s Constitution, since 1964, ensured basic rights for women such as universal suffrage and equal pay. Since the 1950s, girls in Kabul and other cities attended schools. Half of university students were women, and women made up 40 percent of Afghanistan’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers and 30 percent of its civil servants. A small number of women even held important political posts as MPs and judges. Most urbanised women did not wear the burqa (Smeal 2001).

Secondly, the present gains are backed by an occupation that legitimizes itself in the name of women rights. Can women in a country be free when country itself is occupied? However, the reality of women empowerment is further exposed when judged against the power delegated to Northern Alliance by the US occupation. The Northern Alliance [Mujahideen] when in control of Kabul, proved as misogynist as Taliban [as will be discussed below].

Thirdly, the US occupation has created a third enemy for Afghan women. Earlier, we as Afghan women were threatened, and had to struggle against, Taliban and Mujahideen. Now we bear the brunt of occupation too.
Finally, the gains should not be judged in view of their present status. It is equally important to analyse a certain achievement with a futuristic perspective. The uncertainty regarding future is such that even Amnesty International is begging NATO to guard women rights.   How incredible!

Contextualising Afghan women struggle:

It was during the reign of Amir Habibullah (1901-1919) [although an oppressor himself, with a large women harem] that women were given a role outside that of motherhood and a housewife. At that time, a famous reformer, Mahmood Beg Tarzi, argued against overly protective restrictions on women (Dupree 1981:1).

The second and an important period was King Amanullah’s reign (1919-1929). He allowed and encouraged compulsory education for girls, banned child marriages, and prohibited polygamy. These measures were perceived as a threat to Islam and were strongly opposed by mullahs and conservative tribal chiefs (Christensen 1995). Amanullah was inspired by Kemal Ataturk as well as Bolshevik revolution.

For the first time, coeducational schools were established in Kabul. Malalai school was established in 1921 for girls (Rahimi1991:40). The majority of these girls belonged to the upper strata of the population though. In the same year, a special theatre for women was set-up in Paghman. Also in 1921, a newspaper for women, Irshadun-nisa [Guidance for Women], began its publication. The legislation on abolishing Purdah (veil) and the law of improving women's living conditions was adopted during 1927-1928. Also, an office for ‘Women's Support’ was established. It, however, remained limited to cultural affairs.

With the fall of Amanullah, all women-friendly reforms were abolished. Until the late 1940s, women made negligible gains. However, an important measure was the establishment of ‘Women's Welfare Association’ by the Ministry of Finance in 1946 in Kabul city (Woodsmall 1960:163).

One of its objectives was fight back illiteracy among women. Similarly, a Professional Woman Teachers' Code was prepared and passed in 1948. The second girls' high school, Zerghoona, was established in 1950 at Kabul city. A ‘Faculty for Women's Higher Education’ was opened at the Kabul University. The initial flurry of protests soon died out, and several women began to work permanently on Radio Afghanistan. A delegation of (elite) Afghan women participated in a conference of Asian Women in Sri Lanka in 1957. The Afghan government sent a woman delegate to the United Nations. About a dozen women were appointed as receptionists and hostesses for Ariana Afghan Airlines. Unveiled operators were also employed in post offices and telephone booths (Dupree 1973:530-532).

In 1964, for the first time, the constitution formally granted equal rights to men and women. Next year, four women were elected to parliament. For the first time in the history of Afghanistan, a woman (Kubra Noorazai) served as Minister of Public Health (Rahimi1991:17). This period coincides with a surge in popularity of leftist ideas and emergence of leftist press and politics. Understandably.

After the establishment of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) on 1 January 1965, the Women's Democratic Organization of Afghanistan (WDOA) was established on May 29, 1965. The WDOA was a nemesis of state-sponsored Women's Welfare Association (Dupree 1981:7). By late 1980s,  the WDOA claimed 100,470 members (Rahimi1991:18). In 1977, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was formed. This is the only women body that has survived turmoil of the last three decades. However, what is significant about these gains is their organic character.  

The PDPA regime (1978-92) introduced women friendly reforms. That these were top-down reforms like other PDPA-reforms, their efficacy remains debatable. However, women question was accommodated by the PDPA regime at every level also for propagandistic reasons.   

Soon after the Soviet withdrawal in February in 1989, the nation experienced a devastating civil war. In 1992, the Mujahideen, a coalition of seven parties, came to power (Marsden 1998:42). Its president, Burhannudin Rabbani, suspended the constitution and issued religious decrees that prevented women from holding government jobs or jobs in broadcasting, and required them to wear a veil (Goodwin and Neuwirth 2001: A19).Women’s rights were severely curtailed. Even before coming to power, these Mujahideen had made their intentions clear: in 1990, women were forbidden from attending school at refugee camps under their control in Pakistan. To underscore the point, a Peshawar girls’ school was sprayed with bullets (Ibid). What rights remained would be summarily denied when the Taliban came to power in 1996. The US, having funded and armed the Mujahideen, stayed silent.

The Taliban dark-ages:

In 1996, the Taliban on coming to power implemented four central policies regarding women. First, women were forbidden to hold jobs. Second, they could not attend schools until the Taliban had come up with a curriculum appropriate for their primary role of bringing up the next generation of Muslims [they never managed]. Third, women were forced to wear burqas. Finally, women were denied freedom of movement. They could only leave their homes if escorted by male relatives and had to avoid contact with male strangers (Marsden, 1998:88–9). If these rules were transgressed, the religious police would mete out punishments like public beatings.

Despite these open violations of women’s rights, the US supported the Taliban, support that grew out of US efforts to secure a contract for an oil pipeline through Afghanistan that would enable a US-based oil corporation, Unocal, to gain access to Caspian Sea oil (Rashid 2000: 171–82). [Iran was also on Washington’s mind. Patronised by Saudis, Taliban regime was ideologically anti-Iran.]

One US diplomat expressed the logic of this silence, and the underlying contempt for women’s rights, when he observed: ‘Taliban will develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that’ (qtd in Rashid 2000:179). This is the history and material context completely elided by media accounts of Afghan women.


To reduce the potential of global security threats and women liberation! These were the official justifications to invade Afghanistan.

While according to women’s studies professor Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, “Afghanistan may be the only country in the world where during the last century kings and politicians have been made and undone by struggles relating to women’s status” (2003:1), Stabile and Kumar (2005) argue that the central framework employed to justify the US war was thoroughly Orientalist; it constructed the West as the beacon of civilization with an obligation to tame the Islamic world and liberate its women.

With the current Afghan humanitarian and human rights crisis hidden from sight (for the most part), the international community conveniently assumes that women situation in Afghanistan has improved. However, in spite of some gains in health care and access to education (Waldman et al. 2006; Afghanistan Human Development Report 2007), and the media boom, Afghans still remain among the poorest people in the world. Instability is rising as insurgency grows. To make matters worse, a report by The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), reported by Waldman (2008), suggests that the international aid effort in Afghanistan is in large part “wasteful” and “ineffective”, with as much as 40% of funds spent back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries.

As stated above, while some things have changed since the collapse of the Taliban for women, much remains the same. For instance, women may now venture out in certain regions without a male escort, but they still do not enjoy basic human rights. And while 1.5 million Afghan children now attend schools – one third of them girls – more than 3 million children do not go to schools because no infrastructure exists. Reports reveal that women are still punished according to Islamic laws. Kabul jail had no women prisoners shortly after the fall of the Taliban, but as of April 2002 women were being incarcerated for crimes such as leaving their husbands or having relationships with members of the opposite sex (Ahmed-Ullah 2002) [see:].


As Haideh Moghaissi (1999:83) argues, under the present circumstances, the majority of women in the Middle East and North Africa have not fully benefited from the forces of modernism, despite the fact that their lives have been touched by modernisation processes, one way or another. However, modernisation projects in the Middle East over the last hundred years have excluded genuinely transformative changes in gender relations. The patriarchal structures, far from having been truly modernised, have only been reshaped and preserved in ‘modernised’ forms. Women liberation under US occupation is not any different. Even dangerously, these changes --- shaped only to sell the occupation to Euro-US public---are temporary.  


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Sahar Saba is an Afghan women rights' activist. For many years, she was spokesperson of Revolutionary Afghan Women Association (RAWA). Also, she has worked with RAWA for many years in refugee camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan in different capacities. She has traveled to many countries in the past several years to speak on behalf of Afghan women. She was born in Kabul. Her family migrated to Pakistan where Sahar Saba became active with RAWA. She has a law degree from London University and writes on issues facing Afghan women.