As international leaders gathered in London this week to discuss Afghanistan, we once again heard familiar proclamations of support for Afghanistan and renewed commitments towards its people, particularly women and girls. International partners promised to continue to assist Afghanistan through its "transformation decade", but also underlined that as NATO completes it military mission, they also expect the country to stand on its own feet.
This message has its merits. International donors have been generous in giving billions in foreign aid to Afghanistan. Countless lives - foreigners and Afghans - have been lost in the violence. As the military transition completes, Afghanistan is also ushering in a new government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, who has visionary ambitions for his country, and has made firm commitments to support and empower women and girls. As a regular visitor to the war-torn country, I, too, believe that Afghans possess the ingenuity, resilience and desire to transform from poverty to prosperity.
There have been remarkable, often unacknowledged, gains in Afghanistan. For years, as the Taliban ruled, Afghanistan was the world's forgotten country. Human rights abuses were endemic and the population shrank as millions poured over the borders to Iran and Pakistan as refugees. Women were kept from schools and employment and forced into early marriages. Today, many of those refugees have returned home. Millions of girls are in school and record numbers of women are pursuing higher education. There are accomplished female political leaders, policewomen, judges, and for the first time in its young democracy, Afghanistan has a high-profile and active First Lady, Rula Ghani, championing the rights of Afghanistan's internally displaced.
But as we acknowledge progress, we must also accept we have unfinished business in Afghanistan. There is no quick fix for the devastation of 40 years of war, and the Afghan people are still struggling. As foreign troops prepare to leave, my organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is expanding its humanitarian programmes to assist growing numbers of internally displaced persons.
|Foreign aid to Afghanistan has 'low impact'|
In 2014 alone, 120,000 Afghans have fled their homes and communities because of violence. These displaced Afghans, often in need of urgent assistance, typically flock to Kabul and other cities where they believe support will be available for them.
Yet, walk around the overcrowded, ramshackle dwellings, as I did late last year, and it is clear to see that their needs are not being met. On the contrary, they are growing, with women almost always suffering the most.
Afghan women I met told me how their priority is to find a safe place to live in a land still beleaguered by violence. They spoke of the enormous challenges they faced for members of their families to find jobs or earn an adequate income in a country where more than a third already live under the poverty line. Many shared with me the worries they have about being able to put food on the table for their families, a concern all the more alarming given that 1.2 million of the country's children presently suffer from malnutrition. Women without the support of male family members; those widowed, abandoned, who have escaped abuse or care for a disabled husband, are particularly vulnerable.
As there can be no quick fix for war, there is no easy solution for decades of women's rights abuses. Women are much more likely to be more disadvantaged than their husband or brother, and many face extreme poverty, physical and psychological violence, illiteracy and discrimination in all facets of life. There are still deeply entrenched social stigmas towards women working or pursuing education.
Despite the tenuous gains in women's rights, international humanitarian support to help Afghanistan is actually declining.