Afghanistan's Forsaken Women
Of all the tragedies witnessed so far this decade, none may be worse than the one now facing the 19 million women in Afghanistan. If the country's Taliban regime is serious about fostering economic development, it must uphold its promise to respect women's rights.
NEW HAVEN – Owing to the pandemic and other calamities, many referred to 2020 as a “biblical year.” Now, however, it is starting to look like we are in a “biblical decade.” Between the floods in Western Europe, the wildfires in Greece and Turkey, and the Delta and Mu variants of COVID-19, our planet and traditional way of life are coming increasingly under pressure.
Yet nothing this year can compare to the tragedy that is being visited upon Afghanistan’s 19 million women. While those of us in advanced economies contemplate the excesses of our modern society, Afghan women face an acute threat of being plunged back into the dark ages.
The international media has duly highlighted the risks, with many outlets reminding us of the oppression that women suffered under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001. The Taliban have responded with reassurances that women’s rights – especially their rights to work and receive an education – will be respected as long as they are consistent with the values of an Islamic society under Sharia law. The next few months will show whether this promise will be kept.
One can only hope that Afghanistan’s new rulers will stay true to their word and resist the backward-looking forces within their ranks. Doing so would be a clever strategy, not only because it would buy them much-needed good will with the international community, but also because it would be good economic policy. A society that oppresses women is a society that quashes its prospects for growth and development.
A growing body of research has shown that promoting gender equality benefits not only women but the entire economy. An influential 2019 paper in Econometrica, one of the top economics journals, shows that the reduction of occupational gender gaps and other distortions contributed to a more efficient allocation of talent and generated sizable productivity and welfare gains in the United States. The authors attribute a remarkable 20-40% of growth in aggregate market output per person between 1960 and 2010 to the improved allocation of talent.
Eliminating gender and other forms of discrimination could plausibly generate even larger gains in developing countries, many of which exhibit severe resource misallocations and low productivity. In a recent paper, Gaurav Chiplunkar of the University of Virginia and I find that eliminating just the barriers to female entrepreneurship could produce sizable aggregate productivity gains in India. And the benefits would presumably be much larger if gender equality was extended to all aspects of economic activity.
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Obviously, an economy has a much better chance of achieving its full potential when half of its population is not restricted from deploying its skills and talents. As Christine Lagarde and Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund argued in 2018, excluding women from economic activity prevents a country from benefiting from complementarities between male and female labor.
Even prior to the recent regime change in Kabul, women’s prospects in Afghanistan were bleak. One indication of this came from the World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law” (WBL) score, which measures the degree of legal gender discrimination as it affects women’s economic opportunities. A score of 100 indicates complete equality (under the law) between men and women; a score of zero indicates that women have none of the rights afforded to men. In 2020, Afghanistan’s WBL score was 38.1, compared to a global average score of 76.1 and a South Asian regional average score of 63.7.
The World Bank bases its WBL scores on information collected through interviews with legal experts in each country. It covers several topics, including constraints related to mobility, workplace treatment, pay, marriage, parenthood, assets, entrepreneurship, and pensions. But it covers only laws on the books, not their implementation, and it does not cover the cultural and social gender norms that play an equally important role in many countries. Nonetheless, the comparison of WBL scores across countries is revealing.
Afghanistan’s 2020 score of 38.1 means that women there faced severe legal restrictions in almost every category covered by the index even before the Taliban returned. For example, women still were not allowed to travel outside their home or choose where to live in the same way as men. But this is not to suggest that the country made no progress in the 20 years since the Taliban last held power. Despite the enormous political challenges it faced, women’s rights were expanded in some important areas. A 2015 law, for example, allowed women to apply for passports in the same way as men, thus affording them more mobility.
In recent joint work, I argue that while Sharia law imposes some constraints on women, it is not necessarily inconsistent with making progress on legal gender equality. Indeed, several authors have argued that it is patriarchal culture, not Islamic law, that often lies behind stark gender inequalities. Here, Tunisia serves as a good example of how gender equality in the family sphere can be incorporated within the bounds of Sharia. In 2020, the country received a WBL score of 67.5, remarkably higher than the Middle East and North African regional average of 51.5.
Let’s hope that the Taliban will not reverse the small gains of the past 20 years. If they uphold their new commitments, they will win some measure of international good will and improve Afghanistan’s prospects for economic development. For its part, the international community must keep applying diplomatic, political, and economic pressure to ensure that the country’s women are not abandoned to a wretched fate yet again.