IF YOU READ the news, you’ll know that 2014 is set to be an interesting year. Major political changes will undoubtedly change the face of society forever. Experts and commentators have warned that the handing over of power and security could be a monumental historical mistake, particularly if financial support is ended at the same time. The country will cease to rely on external actors. It will be independent - and this is a good thing.
Thankfully, I am not talking about Scotland where political events in 2014 may also be a monumental historical mistake. I am in fact referring to Afghanistan, where 2014 is scheduled for the complete withdrawal of NATO combat forces. Security for the country will then be handed over to the Afghan police and military.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict how far lasting peace and security will have been installed when the withdrawal takes place. But one thing is certain, if positive peace is to be attained in Afghanistan, societal transformation will have to take place. The exit of international troops will not only put more pressure on Afghan security forces, it will also impact attempts to reconstruct society after decades of turmoil. In the run-up to the withdrawal, many local businesses and many sections of society are already feeling the effects. Nowhere is this more evident than at the SARCO ABAD factory in Kabul.
SARCO ABAD Ltd is a garment manufacturing factory in the capital city and on the surface it is not dissimilar to any clothing producer in Scotland, with its high-tech machinery constantly whirling in the background and its workers busily going about their daily business. However, SARCO ABAD, from machine operators to high-level managers, is completely owned and run by women. Whilst this may not seem particularly out of the ordinary in Scotland, in the patriarchal society of Afghanistan, it is completely unprecedented.
Afghan women have suffered intolerably throughout decades of war, civil unrest and recurring natural disasters in their country. During the Taliban's autocratic rule, women were beaten in the street by the religious police if failed to wear anything other all-enveloping burkas. In the male-dominated society, women who were accused of adultery were routinely executed in public ceremonies. Despite the recent international intervention, violence is still pervasive and more than 87% of all women in Afghanistan still suffer from domestic abuse.
In this rugged, landlocked country, poverty is rife and there are few jobs. With a disintegrating infrastructure and widespread environmental damage, over 50% of Afghans live in poverty. Although Article 48 of the Afghan constitution stipulates that every Afghan has the right to work, women have struggled to gain positions due to a systemic lack of opportunities. Combined with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, with only 15% of women able to read and write, Afghan women face a tough time finding any gainful employment.
However, with international assistance, companies like SARCO ABAD have been able to flourish. The factory now employs over 230 women, who make everything from military uniforms and protective clothing to luxury towels and bedsheets. But this is not just any job. This factory gives something that Afghan women have never had; empowerment. All employees are provided with training and healthcare. Free lunches, transportation and daycare facilities also help women who are responsible for supporting their entire families; many of which have been torn apart by decades of turmoil.
Worryingly, now that many international actors are beginning to prepare their exit strategies, companies like SARCO ABAD face closure. Without demand from international bodies, contracts will begin to evaporate and locally owned companies will collapse. In fact, SARCO ABAD's main contract, from NATO, will finish next week. If no replacement contract can be found quickly, many of these women and their families will be left without any income.
In Scotland, we have a tendency to look upon Afghanistan as a nation scarred by war, with its citizens deprived of a safe and normal life. Many families in Afghanistan would reject this assertion. They are not victims; they are simply trying hard to rebuild their lives after decades of oppression.
Military action has helped the country stabilise but in order to secure positive, lasting peace it must be complimented by measures to transform a dysfunctional society. Companies such as SARCO ABAD are taking on that role and they are vital for maintaining peace and transforming the patriarchal culture. Western actors, from Scotland, the UK and the European Union must not abandon Afghanistan in 2014. We must support initiatives which will entrench peace and security in order to really help Afghanistan's road to recovery.
The end of military action does not mean that it is 'Mission Accomplished' in Afghanistan.