Family Planning in the New Afghanistan


Last week, the Washington Post reported on Hillary Clinton’s woman-centered approach to development and peace, one endorsed by many economists. Malcolm Potts, of UC Berkeley, applies this idea to the war in Afghanistan, arguing that if the United States is serious about paving the way for a modern state, we need to invest in women’s empowerment:

A stable, modern and functioning Afghanistan is the West’s goal. But it is not worth risking the death of one more American or British soldier fighting there unless there is a bold, achievable plan to educate women, enhance their autonomy and meet their need for family planning.

Potts points to the example of Iran, which, though troubled in many ways, has seen an improvement in the way it treats women over the past thirty years. In recent years, the number of women in Iran’s universities has risen considerably. This is due, in large part, to the country’s promotion of contraception:

In the 1980s, the typical Iranian woman had almost as many children as her counterpart in Afghanistan today. . . . The Koran mentions contraception in a positive light, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the religious leader and founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, endorsed family planning. . . .The typical Iranian woman now has 2.1 children.

 

There’s no doubt that Iran is a politically repressive state, but with its entire population able to seek educational and professional opportunities, rather than just half, it is in a position to be a high-functioning country. Afghanistan is another story. Even if women there were allowed to go to college, many of them wouldn’t get very far when they had an average of seven children to bear, starting very young.

Potts discusses how dramatic population growth feeds terrorism:

One result of rapid population growth is that two-thirds of the Afghan population is below the age of 25. The primary role models for the volatile, testosterone-filled young men in this group are local warlords. The reason Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (who, incidentally, is the 17th child of a man who had 54 children) have found a haven in Afghanistan is largely because of the mixture of loyalty and anger generated among males in such a society, in which there are no genuine economic opportunities for advancement.

 

This is true. But the argument I find more compelling is for contraception as one component of women’s empowerment. And as Michelle Goldberg pointed out in the American Prospect last month, women’s empowerment should not be thought of as a luxury for countries that have nothing left to strive for. It’s the other way around; women’s rights are necessary, some development experts believe, in order for a country to become prosperous. When women can choose when and if to have children, they live longer, become educated, and contribute more to society.

The State Department’s webpage on Afghanistan states:

The United States and its international partners remain committed to helping Afghans realize their vision for a country that is stable, democratic, and economically successful, and to an Afghan government committed to the protection of women’s rights, human rights, and religious tolerance. 

Stability, democracy, and economic development cannot happen without contraception. Obama has demonstrated his support for family planning as a crucial part of international aid, so we have reason to hope that he’ll pay attention to reproductive rights in Afghanistan.

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