When the U.S. Agency for International Development sought bids last March for a $140 million land reform program in Afghanistan, it insisted that the winning contractor meet specific goals to promote women’s rights: The number of deeds granting women title had to increase by 50 percent; there would have to be regular media coverage on women’s land rights; and teaching materials for secondary schools and universities would have to include material on women’s rights.

Before the contract was awarded, USAID overhauled the initiative, stripping out those concrete targets. Now, the contractor only has to perform “a written evaluation of Afghan inheritance laws,” assemble “summaries of input from women’s groups” and draft amendments to the country’s civil code.

The removal of specific women’s rights requirements, which also took place in a $600 million municipal government program awarded last year, reflects a shift in USAID’s approach in Afghanistan. Instead of setting ambitious goals to improve the status of Afghan women, the agency is tilting toward more attainable measures.

“If you’re targeting an issue, you need to target it in a way you can achieve those objectives,” said J. Alexander Thier, director of USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs. “The women’s issue is one where we need hardheaded realism. There are things we can do, and do well. But if we become unrealistic and overfocused . . . we get ourselves in trouble.”

A senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy said changes to the land program also stem from a desire at the top levels of the Obama administration to triage the war and focus on the overriding goal of ending the conflict.

“Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities,” said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations. “There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.”

The changes come at a time of growing concern among rights advocates that the modest gains Afghan women have achieved since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001 are being rolled back.

New rules being drafted by President Hamid Karzai’s government would bar private safe houses for women who are fleeing abuse and place new rules on those seeking refuge in the country’s 14 public shelters, including forcing women to submit to medical examinations and evicting them if their families want them back. The proposed rules would also bring the shelters — funded by international organizations, Western governments and private donors — under the direct control of the Afghan government.

Women’s advocates say the restrictions on shelters, which have been embraced by religious conservatives sympathetic to the Taliban, are an early sign of the compromises the Karzai government is willing to make to reach a peace deal with insurgents. The advocates fear that reconciliation with the Taliban — a goal supported by the U.S. government — will result in a significant erosion of women’s rights.

In an effort to mollify those concerns, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised last month that the United States “will not . . . support a political process that undoes the social progress that has been made in the past decade.”

Despite the changes in the land reform program, USAID says it is not backing down from helping Afghan women. The agency recently issued a new strategy that calls for incorporating assistance to women into all of its Afghan programs.

“The women of Afghanistan find themselves disconnected from one another, lacking opportunities to participate in the political and economic life of the nation,” the strategy states. “We must support the women of Afghanistan as agents of change.”

Women’s land rights

USAID’s land reform program was intended to address one important but little-recognized cause of conflict in Afghanistan: the lack of clear property ownership records, which is a result of decades of warfare and the absence of an effective government.

Titles to the same plots of land were handed to different people by a succession of governments and local warlords. Squatters have exploited the vacuum of authority to claim abandoned farmland. Fearful of eviction if the central government is able to regain control of contested areas, many turn to the Taliban for protection.

But USAID also sought to remedy another problem. In soliciting bids for the land program last March, the agency said that “women in Afghanistan have few rights to inherit, obtain or transfer land.” It said the initiative, called Land Reform in Afghanistan, was “expressly designed to enhance and improve land use and ownership rights of women.”

To achieve that goal, USAID insisted that the winning contractor conduct several specific activities. They included establishing a strategy for augmenting women’s rights, building a legal-aid system for women, distributing public-education material that advises women of their rights, and implementing incentives for registrars to ensure that marital property is registered in the names of both spouses.

“What was specified would have resulted in a very robust program,” said an executive with a development firm that implements gender programs for USAID. The executive, like other development specialists working for USAID who were interviewed for this story, did not want to be identified, citing concerns that their comments could affect their relationship with the agency.

But the agency canceled the bid solicitation a few weeks later. Senior officials at the State Department thought the program, like many other USAID efforts in Afghanistan, did not involve enough collaboration with the Afghan government.

The redesigned program, which was put out for bids in September, focuses on strengthening and supporting the Afghan Land Authority, a government institution that barely rated a mention in the first document. The new objective, USAID wrote, was to “create Afghan capacity to successfully design, manage and implement needed land reform.”

Among the most significant changes was the section on women. Gone were all of the specific activities listed in the original bid document. The new program emphasizes analysis over action.

“If support can be found” in the Afghan government, USAID wrote, “. . . the Consultant should study the issue of inheritance to determine if it would be possible to amend the inheritance laws to give women greater access to land upon the deaths of their fathers, husbands or sons.”

The winning contractor, Vermont-based Tetra Tech ARD, has only three requirements when it comes to women: to examine and summarize provisions in the country’s civil code dealing with female inheritance; to meet with Afghan women’s groups and other organizations “as needed/appropriate to obtain an Afghan perspective”; and to draft amendments to the civil code reforming women’s inheritance laws.

But the document says that, given the lack of enforcement of inheritance portions of the code, “meaningful reform may not be possible.”

As USAID seeks to work more closely with Afghans, women’s advocates worry that Afghan officials will use their new influence to soften requirements.

“There’s a need to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government, but that can’t be done at the expense of weakening women’s rights and access,” said Ritu Sharma, the president of Women Thrive Worldwide, a Washington-based advocacy organization. Like many other women’s rights advocates, she had not learned about the revisions to the program until contacted by a reporter.

Thier said the revised program was not “a deliberate attempt to get away from women’s issues.” The changes, he said, were a result of a change in the program’s focus. But he also noted that USAID had “feasibility concerns” about the initial requirements. “It was just seen as overreaching in terms of what would be realistic,” he said.

‘Secondary’ concern?

A similar shift in requirements also took place in a large program that aims to improve municipal governments across the country.

When USAID sought bids for the initiative, it specified that the contractor would have to “employ a gender specialist with sufficient expertise,” “develop and implement a gender strategy that supports the inclusion of women in municipal governance,” “implement gender awareness courses” and “provide technical, functional, managerial and leadership training for women in relevant areas of municipal governance.”

That program also was revised. When it was reissued, gender was no longer a line item in the contract. Instead, it was listed as one of three “cross-cutting themes.” It did state, however, that “gender concerns should be incorporated into all aspects of the program.”

Thier said USAID, which allocated $228 million to help Afghan women in fiscal 2010, has “no intention of diminishment in support for gender” in the municipal governance program. He said that it retains a goal of increasing female participation in municipal government to 30 percent of the workforce.

The new program, he said, simply aims to be “less prescriptive” in how the goal is achieved.

But a development specialist who works on gender issues for USAID and has reviewed both bid documents said the original program was “much stronger when it comes to women.” The revised program has a greater focus on providing basic services to the population — a key element of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.

“The focus is no longer on building capacity, because we have to stem the insurgency,” the specialist said. “At times like that, gender becomes secondary.”

USAID officials emphasize that their programs have contributed to significant improvements for Afghan women. The agency has paid for the training of about 1,500 midwives, which has helped to reduce infant mortality. The agency’s support for primary education has helped to increase the number of girls in school from almost zero in 2001 to more than 2.5 million.

Despite deep opposition to women working outside the home, or even continuing schooling after puberty — in rural southern Afghanistan, a common expression among men is that “a woman’s place is in the home or in the ground” — USAID is trying to chip away at those attitudes by providing micro-credit for women to start businesses, teaching them to make handicrafts at home and encouraging them to participate in civil society groups.

“We have had real, fundamental results in the investments we’ve made in the meat-and-potatoes approach to women’s empowerment that gets them in school, keeps them healthy and gradually gets them to have economic opportunity,” Thier said. But he noted that higher-profile issues, such as governance and land reform, have been more challenging for the United States to promote.

“There’s a certain amount of radioactivity in our engagement,” he said. “It’s the Afghans who need to lead that charge.”

But the senior U.S. official said domestic fatigue is also a factor.

“Nobody wants to abandon the women of Afghanistan, but most Americans don’t want to keep fighting there for years and years,” the official said. “The grim reality is that, despite all of the talk about promoting women’s rights, things are going to have to give.”