University of Massachusetts Amherst: New Survey Conducted by UMass Amherst Human Security Lab Reveals Afghans’ Views on Peace, Security, Governance and Human Rights

Preliminary results from a new public opinion survey in Afghanistan released this week by the University of Massachusetts Amherst Human Security Lab detail Afghan views on peace, security, governance and human rights across gender, linguistic, political, educational, socio-economic, geographical and religious divides.

The online survey, answered by more than 20,000 Afghans from all areas of the country, was particularly designed to capture and amplify women’s voices as well as to measure different Afghan men’s attitudes toward gender equality and measure gender gaps in attitudes. Over 8,000 women from all languages, regions and socioeconomic backgrounds participated in the survey and answered questions in their own words about their hopes for the future.

The preliminary results show wide support for women’s human rights in Afghanistan among both men and women. About two-thirds (67%) of men and women (65%) “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement “I believe achieving human rights for women is among the top priorities for my country.” Only 20% of Afghans disagreed with this, with 15% undecided; interestingly, women were more likely than men to strongly disagree with this statement.

In fact, when asked about the top three women’s human rights priorities, Afghan men prioritize certain rights in even greater numbers than women, including education (65% of men, 55% of women), the right to choose a husband (38% of men, 27% of women), the right to participate in government (39% of men, 31% of women) and the right to access healthcare (36% of men, 25% of women). Conversely, a greater number of women see the right to seek asylum as a priority for women (20%) than the number of men who see this as a priority (12%).

In addition to a number of questions about gender equality and women’s rights, the survey also polled Afghans on safety and security, governance, priorities for the future – including human rights, peace and food security – and what sort of international support they would prefer under Taliban rule, including their attitudes on the frozen Afghan national reserves.

The survey found approximately equal numbers of women and men report feeling “much less safe” since U.S. forces left the country, but that women are more likely to report than men that they feel “much more safe” since the Taliban took over. Women and men report supporting or opposing the Taliban in equal numbers, but men are more likely to be undecided in their support for the government.

Afghans have a wide range of views on the future of their country, with just over one-third (34%) of Afghans strongly opposed to Taliban rule and less than one-quarter (23%) strongly supportive of the regime. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Afghans report their ability to get food has worsened, with 45% reporting that it has “worsened a lot.” A majority (52%) of Afghans say the international community should not recognize the Taliban unless an inclusive government is established, with only 23% saying the Taliban should be recognized and another 20% “not sure.” When it comes to physical safety, 23% of Afghans report “repression from the Taliban” as their key concern, while 36% say they are most worried about renewed civil war between the Taliban and opposition groups.

The country is nearly evenly split on whether the reserves should be released (47%) or kept frozen (53%). When asked how they should be released, only 22% believe they should be released to the Taliban. About one-third of respondents say they should either be released to the central bank (32%) or they should be distributed by the United Nations or World Bank directly to the Afghan people (34%). Approximately one-in-10 (11%) provided a range of other ideas, including one respondent who chose none of the options presented wrote in their own words that the reserves should be spent on “funding for infrastructure projects such as the construction of a hydroelectric dam, the construction of the Salang tunnel, the digging of irrigation canals, establishment of a solar panel factory, projects that reduce poverty, create jobs, and reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on foreign aid.”

The survey, which was conducted from March to June of this year, follows a major report on women’s human rights in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan published earlier this year by the Human Security Lab that recommended more representative data-gathering on the views of a wider range of women in that country, as well as on attitudes toward gender equality among men and Taliban supporters.

“Much Western media, human rights or humanitarian fact-finding occurs through conversations with civil society leaders, allowing Western-oriented local elites to speak for all women, and generally prioritizing educated women in urban areas or in the diaspora as key informants,” that report found. “This approach leaves information gaps about the needs of rural women, ethnic groups clustered outside of Kabul, or of women aligned with the Taliban.”

Human Security Lab director Charli Carpenter, professor of political science at UMass Amherst, says the goal of the new project is to correct for those gaps and create a more evidence-based understanding of how to support Afghans and especially Afghan women. “We need to know a lot more, for example, about what Taliban-aligned women are thinking, or about what ‘gender equality’ means to older men, or about how Afghans in rural versus urban areas think about the tradeoffs between peace, security and human rights,” Carpenter says.

In the new survey, Afghans were also invited to answer questions in their own words, rather than simply clicking a box. When asked what achieving human rights for women would look like, more than 2,500 men and nearly 1,500 women wrote an answer in their own words. While the comments have not yet been analyzed, when they are they will represent the most comprehensive and diverse data gathered since the Taliban takeover on cross-ideological Afghan views toward gender equality and the future of the country.

Human Security Lab’s summer program for undergraduates trains students to rapidly and rigorously analyze large quantities of open-ended text answers using DiscoverText, a novel data analytics tool originally created at UMass Amherst.

The project, a collaboration between Carpenter and Bernhard Leidner, professor of psychological and brain sciences at UMass Amherst, was funded by a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant provided the funds to hire a global survey consulting firm, RIWI, which has patented a novel methodology for accessing random samples of internet users’ opinions securely online in dangerous or difficult-to-access environments. This methodology, Carpenter explains, is particularly helpful to conflict researchers, resolving problems of security, safety and access to diverse participants in order to assure more generalizable findings.

Carpenter cautions, however, that “the survey is still not representative of all Afghans,” because internet users themselves are not a representative group, noting that research has found only about one-quarter of Afghans have regular internet access and those who do are over-represented in cities, among youth and among men. “But we do at least have a random sample of those we could reach online, which captures a far more diverse set of voices than snowball sampling or many non-random web-based surveys out there,” she says.

Carpenter says that the team at the Human Security Lab will be analyzing the data more rigorously over the summer and fall, using both statistical and qualitative data analysis methods to determine which women feel safe and unsafe, and how women and men define security and equality in their own words, and plan to release the results later this year.

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