announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on a new $200 million program.
Yet there's a catch to the Promoting
Gender Equality in National Priority Programs: "The five-year plan, called
Promote, is expected to increase economic, social, and political participation
of women between the ages of 18 and 30 through education, job training, microfinance and credit for female
entrepreneurs, and training for policymaking."
The purpose of an age limit for the USAID
program is unclear and could contribute to uneven development in a country
where resentment already runs high.
Meanwhile, US laws
protect USAID employees and contract employees from age or gender
discrimination, as outlined in Promote's request for proposals. Likewise, assessment criteria for funding programs, such
as those of the United Nations, often encourage
inclusiveness. Despite laws and protections,
discrimination, particularly age discrimination, can go unchecked and
unreported even in the United States because of lack of awareness about laws or embarrassment.
Age discrimination is linked with gender
discrimination, suggests the UN Women Coordination Division in its report Between
Gender and Aging:
"Inequalities in income, education, and
employment across the life cycle expose many women to poverty in old age,"
the executive summary notes. "As the status of women in many societies is
linked to having a husband, widows are particularly vulnerable to poverty."
The UN report goes on to report that "older women have not benefited
equally from the progress that has made in tackling violence and abuse, often
failing to be accounted for in both gender and ageing research and
policies" – and suggests that "concerns over the situation of older
women have largely been ignored."
To counter the challenges for older women, the
UN Women Coordination Division recommends a lifelong approach to education,
support for empowerment and priority for "the needs of rural older women
in public policy."
The design of USAID's Promote program focused on
young, urban women counters these recommendations from the UN Women
Coordination Division and could add to Afghan divisions. Granted, 68 percent of
the Afghan population is under the age of 25, yet 77 percent live in rural
areas. The 365-page
request for proposals from USAID vaguely
connects youth with education by explaining that the Promote program will
"invest in opportunities that enable educated women (i.e, women between 18
and 30 years of age who have at least a secondary education) to enter and
advance into decision-making positions in Afghanistan's public, private and
civil society sectors."
The request stresses an expectation that
selected participants will "work towards ensuring the welfare, rights and
opportunities for all Afghan women." To its credit, the USAID
request for proposals suggests a program risk is failure to garner support of
male family and community members and it seeks to ensure that "skills and
knowledge imparted to beneficiary organizations and their staff are sustained
and replicated/ disseminated to others."
That is not enough. USAID coordinators should
know that many applicants already self-select in not pursuing jobs and other
opportunities. Coordinators could have emphasized diversity, eliminating age,
gender and urban requirements – and ensured welfare, rights and opportunities
for all Afghans. The criteria could have been left at attainment of a
secondary education – thus targeting men and women of all ages who support fair
policies and women’s rights.
Donors should be commended for targeting
vulnerable groups that have been historically neglected, yet program exclusions
should be crafted with great care based on sound research and good
reasons. World Bank
research in Afghanistan suggests that development
programs mandating female participation can increase mobility and income for
women, but may “not change female roles in family decision-making or attitudes
toward the general role of women in society.” And a
study cited in the USAID request for proposals notes
that “the Afghan culture places a considerable emphasis on respecting elders
because of their knowledge, wisdom, and experience, which explains why older
transformational leaders are usually more successful in influencing the Afghan
Expanding the pool of applications can add to an
organization’s workload and costs, yet exclusion without good reason can
neglect individuals of great talent, including the Afghan men who support
women's rights and are also essential for the national stability. To
ensure social cohesion, USAID should revise the conditions and open the program
to more applicants.
Photo of entrepreneur at women's bazaar, arranged to allow women to sell handicrafts to NATO troops, courtesy of Maj. Meritt Phillips, US Army, and Wikimedia Commons. The woman's age is unknown, but if she's under 30 she's out of luck for the new USAID program.