An Uncertain Future for Women and Girls in Afghanistan

At its core, the status of women and girls in Afghanistan is a fundamental human rights issue.

The end of U.S. combat operations in December of this year will mark a major shift in Afghanistan, one in which how women and girls will fare is uncertain.

After the Taliban rose to power in the late 1990s, the government severely restricted Afghan women’s rights. Girls were unable to attend school and women confronted severe restrictions on their ability to work, to leave their homes, and to participate in public life. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, women and girls have made significant progress, returning to the public sphere and to school in large numbers. Women leaders are playing important roles not only in advancing the rights of women and girls, but also in rebuilding their country.

This progress, however, could easily slip backward after the U.S. transition. The Council on Foreign Relations examines this issue in a new report on preserving and extending the gains made by Afghan women and girls over the past decade. The report provides a useful overview of progress made and challenges that remain and makes policy recommendations to the U.S. government. If implemented expeditiously and effectively, these recommendations can help guard against the reversal of hard-won gains for Afghan women and girls in critical areas like human rights and education while also supporting further progress.

CFR’s policy recommendations fall into two broad categories. First, the report recommends that the National Security Council put in place and lead a new interagency structure to ensure a high-level, sustained focus on Afghan women and girls throughout the transition and through the end of 2016. This White House–led group should work closely with the State Department–led Afghan Gender Task Force, which the report also offers ideas for strengthening. Second, the report recommends that the U.S. government take concrete steps to improve Afghan women’s security and support women’s rights, women’s participation in political decision making, and sustainable development outcomes that improve the lives of women and girls.

The report’s emphasis on rural women and girls is especially important. In many ways, the story of the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan is quite different in urban and rural areas. Gains in education, political, and economic participation, security, and health for women in urban areas far exceed the much more tenuous progress in rural areas where significant barriers remain. The greater vulnerability of women in rural areas to insecurity needs specialized focus from major international donors such as USAID—from reversing the downward trend in funding for girls’ education to ensuring access to training and income-generating opportunities for rural women.

Moreover, during and after the transition, the U.S. government should support Afghan women’s rights organizations so that they can be a voice for women’s needs and concerns and press the Afghan government to uphold women’s human rights and improve laws and policies.

Among the numerous issues the report highlights for advancing women’s status is addressing the security situation—both how women are affected by insecurity and women’s role in achieving peace. This issue is critical to the success of the transition and to long-term peace, security, and opportunity for all Afghans. Women’s freedom of movement and ability to take their place in public life is a clear indicator of progress in this area and should be closely monitored in the coming years.

To that end, the report recommends that the U.S. government coordinate international donor support for Afghanistan’s development of a National Action Plan to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. This proposal is especially important, not least because of the limited role women have been given in discussions about peace and reconciliation so far.

The development of a National Action Plan on 1325 offers a vehicle for involving women in peace building and can set a course toward fuller participation of women in public life and improvement of women’s status over the long haul. The Afghan government and women’s rights activists, notably the Afghan Women’s Network, have been leading a process to draft a plan on 1325. The work has involved consultations with women in the five main regions of the country. The process has been slow, with some foot dragging by the Afghan government, but the goal is to finalize the plan in the coming weeks or months. 

Even when a National Action Plan on 1325 is agreed, it cannot remain words on a page. Implementation requires commitment and resources to carry out the actions identified in the plan, both of which could be bolstered by focused international support. The experience of the High Peace Council has been instructive: women were reluctantly given just nine representatives out of 70, but have been excluded from real decision-making. This dynamic could improve with more political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government. Much will depend on the commitment of the next President of Afghanistan and his government to protecting the rights of women. Both of the final candidates have made positive statements about their intent in this regard.

At its core, the status of women and girls in Afghanistan is a fundamental human rights issue. Women’s rights are not just a means to an end or an issue to be negotiated by men on the path to peace. The Afghan government must respect and protect the human rights of all its people, women and men, girls and boys. Given the tragic history of violations of the human rights of women and girls, particularly under the Taliban, unwavering commitment to preserving and extending the gains Afghan women have made is critical—by the Afghan government and by the United States and the international community.

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