LOS ANGELES, California — Despite four decades of ongoing conflicts, women in Afghanistan remain resilient in withstanding assaults on their fundamental rights and freedoms. Since the Taliban regime seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the country has endured a large-scale humanitarian and economic crisis. More than a year later, citizens face food insecurity and inadequate health care access, but women, in particular, are enduring oppressive measures. Onward for Afghan Women is taking action by fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
In an open letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, several humanitarian organizations expressed concern at the state of women’s rights in the country, including bans on secondary education, employment opportunities and access to public spaces without a male chaperone. But, before the Taliban takeover, the efforts of many human rights activists, journalists, lawmakers and lawyers had led to significant progress for women’s rights. These civil society leaders were forced to promptly evacuate the country or risk facing persecution as a result of their advocacy work.
Onward for Afghan Women, which officially came about in January 2022 as an initiative of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, facilitated the dignified resettlement of at-risk Afghan women leaders into countries such as the U.S. and Canada. The initiative also gives Afghan women a platform to continue fighting for the rights of the girls and women still in Afghanistan.
The State of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan
After the Taliban’s initial regime fell in 2001, women took on an active role in civil society and governance. Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution enshrined gender equality and women’s rights, including laws on equality in education and employment as well as justice mechanisms for victims of gender-based violence.
According to the World Bank, women comprised around 21% of civil servants and 27% of parliamentary members in 2020. Girls’ enrollment in secondary education also increased dramatically from 6% in 2003 to 39% in 2017. Despite visible regional differences, as women residing in urban areas held greater freedoms than those in rural regions, the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan had improved, in large part due to civil society leaders.
However, when the Taliban regained control in August 2021, women’s rights became severely curtailed. Based on surveys of Afghan women conducted over the past year by the humanitarian organization Women for Women International, the main challenge within communities is “restrictions on women’s freedoms.” The majority of respondents said they could not leave their houses unaccompanied and send their daughters to school. Respondents cited economic hardship as the greatest personal challenge, which was compounded by restrictions on women’s employment — about 25% of the respondents had their income decrease to zero over the year.
Deteriorating Human Rights
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan Richard Bennett released a report in September 2022, which further details increases in instances of child marriage as employment and education are no longer options for young women to support themselves. In addition, gender-based violence, both domestic and against women’s rights defenders, has increased, but women have no avenue for justice under the Taliban regime’s Sharia law.
Moreover, prominent women’s rights leaders who were active before the takeover had to flee the country or risk persecution due to their advocacy efforts. These women became part of the 2.7 million refugees from Afghanistan, estimated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as of June 2022.
After August 2021, the Congressional Research Service states that the U.S. evacuated around 138,000 individuals, including American diplomatic personnel, citizens of other countries and at-risk Afghans who had worked with international organizations or the former government.
Onward for Afghan Women
The Borgen Project spoke with Allie Smith and Lina Tori Jan of Onward for Afghan Women about their resettlement efforts for Afghan women leaders. Smith, the founder and director of the initiative, said that the team helped evacuate around 1,100 of these women and their families.
Despite being thousands of miles away, Afghan women leaders have not stopped fighting for their country. The Onward for Afghan Women initiative helped connect women to U.S. policymakers to help inform decisions surrounding Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of State, in partnership with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, U.S. Institute for Peace, the Atlantic Council and the Sisterhood is Global Institute, established the U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism (USACM) in July 2022.
USACM provides a platform for Afghan women’s groups and civil society leaders to offer their expertise and amplify the voices of Afghan women on the ground, directing U.S. officials to best support humanitarian efforts and local organizations in Afghanistan.
Waning international attention on Afghanistan and general complacency about the crisis is disheartening, Smith added. Although USACM is still in its pilot stage, the renewed efforts to support Afghan people and get policymakers to make meaningful changes are critical. “The aim of it is really to create a central node for Afghan engagement in U.S. policymaking and to really elevate that engagement,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, Afghan women inside the country continue to fight for freedom. On August 13, 2022, around 40 women in Kabul marched in protest of the one-year anniversary of Taliban rule and pushed for improved women’s rights. However, the Taliban forces met these protests with violence through open fire and detainments, which led to a quickly disbanded protest. While these spontaneous movements take unparalleled bravery, Smith says that the movements are often localized and cannot be sustained without support.
“I do think one of the most promising ways right now is for international aid to go directly to women’s groups and women’s organizations. Because right now, making sure that those organizations can stay afloat and functioning and deliver services is essential if there is to be a sustainable women’s movement, hopefully, post the current crisis,” Smith said.
Through initiatives such as Onward for Afghan Women and USACM, Afghan women leaders, who were evacuated to the U.S. and other countries, hope to gain international support for the girls and women who remain in Afghanistan.
– Ramona Mukherji