When Lauryn Oates started raising money to send women in Afghanistan to school, she wasn't sure they would ever emerge from the underground classrooms that kept them hidden from the threat of the Taliban.
“We went at this in uncertainty, not knowing if anything was going to change and the best we could do was to make sure girls were going to school in secret schools,” said the 29-year-old, who has been working with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WA), an organization that has funded education programs for Afghan women since 1996.
But things did change in 2001, when Osama bin Laden took aim at the United States, starting a war that would come back to the Middle East and provide some hope for the women living under the strict rule of the Taliban.
Today, 50,000 women attend the schools and literacy classes supported by CW4WA in ten of Afghanistan's provinces. More than 2.2 million girls are enrolled in school, braving daily threats to their safety, to get an education they could only dream of before 2001.
The surge in female students is evidence of the gains women have made since the Taliban fell. Women can now vote, run for office, are protected by stronger laws and have voices in institutions like the Ministry of Women's Affairs.
Despite the impressive gains, the uncertainty has not disappeared for Oates or the women she works with.
Canada's combat mission in Kandahar is wrapping up in July and will be replaced with a training mission based out of Kabul, but there is fear that the fragile advances will be put at risk in the transition if the government doesn't set an explicit and detailed plan for protecting and building on the gains made by women.
“Women have gone after the opportunities that are there, they are just anxious that that is going to end prematurely if the international forces up and leave before those gains have been consolidated,” said Oates, who has travelled to Afghanistan over 20 times since the Taliban fell.
“You see all the programs in Kandahar closing down and that sends a message that we are only in Kandahar so long as the military is here,” she said.
A déjà vu
The shift comes at a crucial time for women in Afghanistan as the Hamid Karzai-led Afghan government focuses on political negotiations that will include some of the same groups that have sought to limit freedom for women.
Canadian senator Salma Ataullahjan is worried that could mean women are headed for a horrific déjà vu.
Ataullahjan, an ethnic Pashtun from northern Pakistan, saw how much freedom the women in Afghanistan had before the Russians invaded Afghanistan.
“They were business owners. They were modern. They were contributing to every aspect of life,” she said. “Then the Russians left and the world turned their face away and the women really suffered.”
With Canada poised to leave the country, Ataullahjan asked the upper chamber to come up with a way to protect the gains women have been able to make.
“Canada has played such an important role in Afghanistan and I wanted the advancement of women's rights to be a part of the priorities for Canada in 2011,” she said. “It takes a long time to get those basic human rights, but you can lose them in a matter of days,” she said.
The ensuing report affirmed Ataullahjan's worries. The final draft read; “… advances made since 2001 with respect to women's rights could be compromised by demands pursued, or choices made, by the parties at the negotiating table, including the Government of Afghanistan, tribal leaders and the Taliban.”
The senators argue the government of Canada should make the advancement of women's rights an explicit priority in its post-conflict training mission.
Canada pledges continued support
Women's rights, including their right to education, have long been a stated priority for the Canadian mission.
On a surprise visit to Kandahar Airfield on Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised the combat mission's achievements when it came to women's education in Afghanistan. In previous visits, Harper has pledged “Canada will do its part” on investing in education and human rights protections for women.
“[Rights] are pretty core to everything we do,” said Jennifer Myles, a senior gender equality specialist at the Canadian International Development Agency. “It's a difficult issue not to address.”
Myles said the agency's focus on education, especially in rural areas, the workshops in political participation and the projects that help women make their own income have been the most successful.
And this work isn't contingent on a corresponding combat role, although it helps give Canada a stronger voice and has helped create the secure conditions for development, says Myles.
As evidence of CIDA's ongoing support for Afghan women, Myles points to Minister Bev Oda's comments when the government announced the transition.
“Thanks in part to our investments, we have achieved significant progress in helping improve life for women and children, but more progress is required, especially in Afghanistan's education and health sectors,” Oda said in November. “Canada will continue to place an important focus on women in its development work in Afghanistan.”
Jennifer Rowell, an advocacy coordinator for CARE in Afghanistan, said the promises the Canadian government has made to include women in decisions and the commitments to continue supporting women's rights are positive first steps, but she hopes Canada isn't missing a chance to become an international champion for rights.
Leaving women behind
Canada's pull-out is just the beginning of an onslaught of international withdrawal, she said. The Dutch, Germans and even the Americans are planning to wind-down.
As the troops plan to leave, women are coming out of the shadows and are seizing opportunities and rights.
The problem, says Rowell, is that the government and society are not yet ready for them.
“It's an asymmetrical progress where women are being encouraged to come out of the woodwork and engage in these ways before the society and the system of government and the system of basic services is fully ready to accept them back,” Rowell said. “There will be repercussions for that.”
But the dream isn't yet dead for Afghan women, according to Oates.
“People are no longer under the thumb of the Taliban. They are free to dream of a different future,” she said. “People are empowered in one sense and they think they are capable to do anything in the world.”