The Gender Inequality Index and thoughts on our work in Afghanistan

Jane Carter, 08 September 2014
The Gender Inequality Index and thoughts on our work in Afghanistan

The UNDP’s Human Development Report 2014 came out – somewhat later than usual – in July this year. Its topic of vulnerability and “a widespread sense of precariousness in the world today” certainly strikes a chord given daily depressing news from the Middle East and elsewhere. Few, either, would contest the assertion on the first page that “almost everywhere, women are more vulnerable to personal insecurity than men”. We know it – the statistics show it – but that doesn’t mean to say that women and girl’s vulnerability is always taken into explicit consideration in interventions addressing vulnerability. This said, I’m always curious to see the latest rankings in the Gender Inequality Index, one of the various indices of human progress or otherwise in the annexes.

This year (for 2013 figures) the surprise number 1 – that is, the country with the least gender inequality according to the UNDP is…. Slovenia. (No country is deemed to have gender equality.) Switzerland ranks number 2, whist Sweden and Norway, commonly cited as the countries with the greatest gender equality, are 4 and 7, respectively. At the bottom of the ranking system at 152 is Yemen (data is insufficient to rank all countries of the world); of the countries in which Helvetas is active, Afghanistan (150), Niger (149), and Mali (148) come out worst.

Before drawing any conclusions, it’s worth noting how the index is compiled. Leaving aside the question of how the figures are sourced (mainly from government statistics, although cross-checked and in some cases reported as estimates), the index is compiled from indicators of

  • women’s reproductive health (measured as maternal mortality ratio and the adolescent fertility rate);
  • “empowerment” (measured by parliamentary representation and achievement in secondary and higher education); and
  • participation in the labour market.

The reason that Slovenia makes it to the top of the ranking appears to be its very low rate of teenage pregnancies; whilst it performs well in all other indicators, it is not outstanding.

In all the top ranking countries, educational opportunities for girls are excellent, with in general 80-90% of girls completing secondary education. By contrast, the figures for women’s educational (and other) opportunities in Afghanistan and Mali are particularly dismal, with 5.8% of girls in Afghanistan reportedly having at least some secondary education (this is an estimated figure), and 7.7% in Mali. Given media coverage of Afghanistan, it is not difficult to imagine some of the challenges that might be involved in promoting girls’ schooling. I had the opportunity recently to meet some of my Afghan colleagues and to learn about how they address these challenges in a project in Kahmard, a remote valley of Bamyan province.

Arghawan Akbari, who is based in our Kabul office, explained that in 2006, they conducted a participatory planning exercise, and were told that not a single woman in the valley could read, write or calculate. Both men and women considered illiteracy to be a problem, as it severely limited any way to improve their lives; the frustration it caused was also directly linked by them to high levels of violence against women. So in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the project recruited male and female teachers, and organised a safe place for holding lessons – for men the mosque (or rather the madrassa), and for women, a private house. However, only young men and boys came to the lessons. Men felt ashamed “to be treated like children”; and they feared for the physical safety of their wives (in particular) and their daughters. This is in a context that the smallest rumour of “dishonour” can have fatal consequences. My colleagues saw that the greatest opportunity for improving literacy lay in combining religious and conventional education for girls. Thus efforts were put into training willing mullahs as teachers, who were employed in government schools for girls. At the same time, accelerated learning classes were held to allow girls and boys who had missed out on schooling (due to the conflict) to catch up. The privacy of the government girls’ schools was improved by building high walls, and women teachers were recruited and trained to teach advanced levels of conventional subjects (maths, sciences, etc) that mullahs were not always competent to teach. Thus over the years, some girls in the valley gained a full secondary education (12th grade) – but this did not necessarily improve their life opportunities, and sometimes counted against them in their marriage prospects. (Arranged marriages are the norm, and uneducated girls were thought likely by potential mothers-in-law to be more docile).

1st year primary school -  community based education in Kahmard Qakor CDC © HelvetasJob opportunities were needed, and as a step towards this, a women’s resource centre was supported in offering training in English and computer skills. More significant, however, was the opening of a women’s Teacher Training College in Kahmard by the Ministry of Education. Becoming a teacher and gaining a regular salary and the respect that goes with it, is a goal that motivates both girls and most parents (including potential in-laws). So, step by step, life opportunities have improved for the girls of Kahmard – but has been a slow process, and one that could be potentially derailed by any negative examples – or, of course, by renewed outbreaks of conflict. One has to hope that the more lives are changed for the better, the less likely a downward spiral becomes. And linking back to my first posting, we never talk about “gender” in Afghanistan – we work on social inclusion.

Jane Carter
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