Women’s Employment in Afghanistan

A few years ago, a colleague at Towson got in touch and asked if I had any data from that refugee project I had worked on. He had an honors student with a lot of promise, he said, and wouldn’t it be cool to work on a paper together? I, having little time or incentive (as a then-independent consultant/researcher/quasi-academic/whatever) to publish, loved the idea of getting some of that hard work into the public sphere. When that student graduated and we had one paper published, we kept going, writing another paper with the refugee data, and then cajoled another student into working with us, too, on an idea about terrorism and women’s employment in Afghanistan.

As if I couldn’t be happier to work with this crew, the wins keep coming. I’m very excited to announce that this paper with Seth and Lauren Cahalan came to fruition and has been accepted at Oxford Development Studies! In light of a heavily publicized paper on time to publication in economics, it’s worth noting this paper saw its fair share of rejection, but ultimately was about 2.5 years from idea to paper acceptance. We’re very excited.

We ask two main research questions in the paper:

  1. Is the number of terrorist attacks and casualties associated with women’s employment?
  2. Is that relationship different for men?

Theoretically, we hypothesized it could go either way. If terrorist attacks are more likely to directly affect male mortality, then perhaps women need to enter the workforce to provide for their families. On the other hand, if more attacks make the perceived security situation worse, male decision makers may be less likely to permit women to work.

Overall, both men’s and women’s employment go down at about the same rate (though disproportionate against the baseline) when the number of attacks goes up, supporting the fear and security hypothesis. But women’s employment actually goes up when there are more casualties, supporting the replacement hypothesis. Ultimately this increase is small, and only holds up in rural areas for women in non-agricultural work

I love this paper for lots of reasons besides stellar coauthors. It was so neat to watch Lauren build her Stata skills through the careful matching of datasets and then really dig into the econometrics. Topically, it continues a really fun strand of my work on women in the labor force with the added context of conflict-affected space.

The abstract is below, but I think there are few important things to come out of this paper.

The first is that causality is hard here. We look at lagged variables to try to show how changes in number of events and casualties changes labor force participation down the line, but it’s likely that attacks aren’t random and may even be related to the number of women in the workforce.

The second is that there are some really interesting rural/urban differences, much of which appears to be driven by which sectors are already accepting of women, but could be driven by underreporting of agricultural work by women as we see in other parts of the world.

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries for women and has the sixth lowest women’s employment rate globally. The low participation rate represents a large loss of potential economic activity and raising it could have large effects on growth. Security concerns are a key underlying barrier preventing women from working, but there is little work estimating the magnitude of a mechanism behind these effects. We address this gap in the literature by estimating the relationship between terrorism and women’s employment. We link a representative household survey, the 2015 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which catalogues terrorist attacks, locations, and fatalities. We find that the number of attacks per month in a given province is negatively associated in the following month to both men’s and women’s employment, yet the relative magnitude is larger for women due to their low employment rate. Conversely, we find that fatalities from these attacks are positively associated with women’s employment in non-agricultural sector in rural areas. This research illuminates a potential link between women’s employment and terrorism, thus adding to the ever-increasing knowledge of the costs of conflict.


Seth, Lauren and I had lunch on Saturday at an Afghani restaurant in DC and it was a reminder of how much fun these have been for me. Seth has turned these initial two projects with students into a veritable researcher training ground, with Slack groups and lab meetings and a steady stream of excellent students who are asking interesting questions, learning the ins and outs of econometric analysis, and generally killing it. If you have the desire to do research with undergrads–including and especially practitioners–check out the work Seth has done to create lessons learned from this group. Or! Bring him a research idea and ask him who the next Savannah or Lauren is; I’m sure you’ll get a good one!


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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