Afghanistan: A Way Forward for Women and Girls
By Susan Markham
November 08, 2021
Since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in mid-August, the world has witnessed stories of perseverance, heroism, and heartache as Afghans flee their country. But almost 40 million Afghans remain in Afghanistan. While some are still trying desperately to leave, most are not.
As attention shifts away from evacuation to debating policy for what’s next, it is imperative that the international community, including the U.S. government, learn lessons from the past 20 years and understand what is important to Afghans going forward. Afghan women, who have borne the brunt of the Taliban regime’s policies in the past and now anew, must be able to express their needs and what they expect from the international community in the months and years to come.
For some, leaving is not an option and would never cross their minds. For others, remaining is an act of resistance to the Taliban, and those individuals continue their fight for women’s rights and human rights. Those who remain face dire circumstances, including food insecurity and a crumbling economy. Even before the fall of Afghanistan, half of the country’s population needed humanitarian assistance. According to the United Nations, only 5 percent of Afghan households have enough food; more than half of children under 5 are likely to be acutely malnourished in the next year.
In his first press conference on Aug. 18, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid attempted to reassure women and the international community: “Our sisters, our men have the same rights …. Women are going to be working shoulder-to-shoulder with us.”
But, since then, there has been a drumbeat of bad news for women and girls. While Afghan boys have been able to return to school at all levels, most Afghan girls have not returned to secondary school, with the exception of several provinces in northern Afghanistan. Many women have not been able to return to work. The need for a male “guardian” to leave their homes has been enforced. Forced marriages are on the rise. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, international donors continue to debate how to address the pressing needs of the Afghan people. The European Union pledged $1.2 billion for urgent humanitarian assistance. At the same time, governments are struggling with whether to recognize the Taliban regime. So far, none have done so, but the issue of what conditions to place on diplomatic recognition looms large.
The United States has taken steps to support both Afghans who have left and those who remain. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has committed to appointing a senior State Department official to oversee the administration’s efforts to protect women, girls, and minorities in Afghanistan. Over the course of 2021, the United States has pledged $474 million in humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan and Afghan refugees in the region. The State Department also tapped retired Ambassador Beth Jones to lead Afghan relocation and resettlement efforts.
Ensuring that the voices of those impacted by U.S. foreign policy decisions are heard in these processes is one of the key principles of feminist foreign policy, about which we have written in the past. The United States and other donors must listen to women — those who have left, those who wish to leave, and those who remain — about what is needed as they move forward.
Over the last few weeks, we interviewed a dozen Afghans, attended events and panel discussions, and consulted with others working with Afghans as part of the evacuation. They included women and men, and many had just left Afghanistan, all with family and friends still there, and all in constant contact with those remaining. Almost all were exhausted and shocked at the rapid fall of the country and the chaotic evacuation efforts.
There is much to be said about the 20-year U.S. government engagement in Afghanistan, the decision by successive American presidents to withdraw, and how the withdrawal and evacuation were implemented. History will judge these efforts and their impact. History will also judge U.S. actions moving forward.
This article reflects a snapshot in time, setting out what we heard about the current situation and the hopes and expectations of Afghans for the international community, particularly the U.S. government and the United Nations. Certainly, this can’t represent all of the voices and opinions that exist, and the picture will change as events unfold. There were consistent themes, however, and where there were disparate views, that is reflected as well.
An International Push for Human Rights and Women’s Rights
As Afghanistan faces the upcoming winter, a crumbling economy, and widespread hunger, the Taliban is pressing donors, including the Biden administration, to release $8 billion in frozen Afghan assets. All of those we spoke with urged the Biden administration to use the leverage that exists at this moment in time to secure commitments from the Taliban regarding the protection of human rights and women’s rights, including access to education at all levels and the rights of women to participate fully in both public and economic life. As we heard from at least one person, Afghan women feel they are on their own, no longer supported by the international community and many of their own family members. As others have reported, Afghan women’s rights have always been fragile. The Taliban’s return with traditional values, in which women are subordinate to their male relatives, is attractive to many Afghan men.
Those we interviewed expressed widespread sentiment that international donors — the U.S. government, the U.N., and others — must continue to protect Afghan civilians, particularly women and girls, who are extremely vulnerable. Many said humanitarian and other aid should be conditioned on Taliban actions, not policy pronouncements, which are inconsistent and change over time. Importantly, this includes a commitment by the Taliban that women and girls will have equal access to basic needs such as food assistance, medicine, and healthcare. Otherwise, millions of Afghan women and girls as well as those from ethnic and religious minorities, will be even more at risk. There are also many concerns about how to hold the Taliban accountable, given their internal rifts and their seemingly decentralized – meaning inconsistent — enforcement of policy.
Several expressed strong support for emergency assistance being channeled through the U.N. and NGOs, not through the Taliban government. This is consistent with licenses recently issued by the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions authorities to groups such as the U.N. and NGOs to deliver food, medicine, and services that provide “basic human needs,” even while the United States maintains sanctions on the Taliban. We know from research that aid distribution systems that best meet the needs of women and girls are those that include them in program design, and that involving women in aid delivery also increases accountability.
Mixed Views on Negotiating with the Taliban
Our interlocutors had mixed perspectives on Afghans negotiating with the Taliban at the local level. Some people were opposed to any negotiations, but most believed they had no choice but to negotiate and that such discussions were essential to ensure that women have some agency and form of livelihood to support their families. As one said, “It’s a luxury to not engage with the Taliban.”
We heard that it was important for women to be part of conversations with the Taliban to try and find some common language and common ground on issues facing the country. One person said that older women with experience, who are able to speak knowledgeably about issues and about Islam, for example, would be best-positioned to serve in these roles.
Some of the Afghans we spoke with advanced the argument that Islam supports women working and that businesses that are owned and managed by women and that employ and serve women are not adverse to Taliban ideology.
Most, however, were nervous about the outcomes of such negotiations and the impact on individual women. We heard that some women who had tried to negotiate with the Taliban had been beaten. In some localities, the Taliban were willing to meet, but in others, they would not negotiate with women and would talk only to male community elders and family members on behalf of local women.
Women Must Have Equal Access to Humanitarian Assistance
Families are destitute and starving on the streets of Afghanistan. Responding to these needs is paramount. To a person, those we interviewed fear that international donors will not adequately consider how to get needed food, medicine, and clothing to women. If assistance plans are not designed with the realities of women’s lives in mind, it is almost certain that aid will be delivered to men, who will control not only the assistance but a crucial aspect of women’s lives. As one person said, “If women are not involved in the distribution of aid, how will they benefit?”
We heard that entities providing humanitarian assistance must include senior women officials and personnel on staff with an understanding of the local languages and cultural context. This includes international NGOs and programs such as the World Food Programme. Such entities can also empower local women by working with remaining grassroots organizations and requesting regular meetings with Afghan women leaders in order to include their perspectives and needs in their plans. While skeptical that this would occur, we heard it would be even better if these entities directly hired (or retained) Afghan women to provide for the health, education, livelihoods, and security of Afghan communities. The World Health Organization and UNICEF announced on Oct. 19 that the Taliban government agreed to restart a door-to-door polio vaccination program in November, and will allow women to be frontline workers.
Several of the Afghans that we spoke with mentioned that direct cash transfers to families (through remittances via telephones or charity donations) must be supported and enabled. Afghans should have safe and unfettered access to their bank accounts, savings, and services such as Western Union.
We heard that programs must include services and materials to address the health, sanitation, and nutritional needs of women and girls, including but not limited to reproductive health care. Several people highlighted that Afghan colleagues in the country are asking for continued support to the existing health system, which is on the verge of collapse, and network of provincial hospitals, health centers, and mobile clinics. Facilities are closing and health care workers, many of whom are women, are in short supply. But the humanitarian response should not supplant what already exists. The Ministry of Health under the Ghani administration had clearly defined its priorities for the coming years through the Integrated Package of Essential Health Services, launched in September 2019.
Women’s Agency and Engagement Must Be Encouraged
While many Afghan women leaders have left the country, individual women and women-led civil society organizations still remaining must be able to operate and move freely and safely throughout the country. Like everywhere, women’s participation in the economic, political, and social sectors is critical for the survival and success of the country. In Afghanistan, it is also linked to women’s survival, given the dire economic circumstances that exist.
Working empowers women, and this is an important outcome on its own. The U.S. government can continue to provide opportunities for women to be agents of change. Local institutions, like Community Development Councils, often run by women, could be used to distribute international humanitarian assistance. Civil society organizations which have previously implemented development programs could pivot to address current needs.
There was a strong sense that while humanitarian needs are critical, women’s rights and human rights are still important. This includes access to education, the ability to work, access to a justice system that treats women fairly, and protection from violence, harassment, threats, or exploitation. The security and protection of women who work in government, in the legal, judicial, and security sectors, and those active in civil society (media, arts, education, and health), is still important. While in the short run, these goals seem distant, the international community should continue to advocate for them.
Further, we heard that the U.S. government and international bodies should model the importance of women’s leadership by including women in any discussions with the Taliban, ensuring that women lead delegations, and continuing to employ Afghan women in international organizations. Humanitarian donors should continue to fund Afghan NGOs that have provided health and social services to communities, especially to women and girls, for the last 20 years. These community-based organizations can bring essential care to the most remote parts of Afghanistan, where people have been interacting with these professionals and trust them.
Connect Afghan Women Inside and Outside of the Country
Finally, as time goes on, there may be a growing schism between those who remained and those who left. Regardless of how the choice or decision was made, these groups of women have different strengths and needs. Women still in the country can provide much-needed community services, but also continue to collect and share information and stories about what is going on in Afghanistan. Those in the diaspora and their allies can use this information to keep the spotlight focused on the plight of Afghan women and children and to keep resources flowing to those in need. The U.S. government could play a role in supporting both groups (such as in ways noted above for those still in the country) and in keeping them in contact.
Most crucially, the U.S. government must meaningfully consult with and listen to Afghan women inside and outside of the country to better support their ongoing and changing situations.
Finally, we heard that raising outside voices on behalf of Afghan women and girls is critical, since many Afghans are unable to raise their own voices right now. Keeping the issue of Afghanistan, and the future of women and girls, on the global agenda keeps pressure on both the Taliban and international policymakers. This includes asking key questions about the status of Afghan women and girls, whether they remain in the country or not.