Fifteen months ago, on August 15, 2021, the Taliban took over the government of Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of insurgency. It now calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, although its government is yet to be recognized by any country.
The Taliban is a militant Islamic fundamentalist group that originally emerged in 1994 as one of the prominent factions in the Afghan Civil War. It consisted mainly of Pashtun tribesmen from the south and east of the country, who had been educated in traditional religious schools. Since their return to power last year, Taliban leaders have not articulated a consistent vision of how they intend to structure the Afghan state. However, in an otherwise ideologically fractured movement, its position on women’s rights has been central to its vision.
Despite initial promises to the international community that women would be allowed to exercise their rights, the Taliban has systematically excluded women and girls from public life. It has banned their education beyond the sixth grade, restricted their employment, required them to wear burqas in public, and mandated that they be accompanied by a male chaperone if they travel over 45 miles from home.
These edicts have not only physically curtailed the women’s movement, but they have also had deeper and far-reaching cultural and societal impacts.
For one, pre-existing norms around male leadership have been consolidated and legitimized. Decrees and punishments have created an environment of fear and intimidation to the point that families and communities self-police, entrenching regressive cultural norms. The majority of women journalists have had to stop working, amid an environment of threats and harassment. Many women-led civil society organizations have shut down as high-profile women leaders have been forced to flee the country.
For another, basic amenities such as education and health services have been severely affected. Schoolteaching has historically been an “acceptable” field of employment for women, and over a third of the workforce at all levels of education is comprised of women. Summarily banning them from working has created a crisis in access to education, not only for girls but also for boys. Similarly, the quality of the health system, already plagued by service gaps and inequalities, has worsened. In fact, the Taliban’s policy towards women’s employment in healthcare showcases their prioritization of fundamentalist policies without any regard for the normal functioning of the state. Since their takeover, they have forbidden healthcare practitioners from treating patients of the opposite sex. In time, combined with the banning of advanced education for women, this means there will be no female doctors or nurses in the workforce. The girls and women of Afghanistan are thus looking at a future where they will be unable to receive any medical attention at all – a healthcare crisis possibly without precedent in the world.
Last but not least, violence against women has worsened, caused by a fatal combination of drivers – an increase in risk factors (confinement to the home, curtailment of physical movement, economic pressure, and erosion of women’s rights), a rise in child marriages and forced marriages (which raises the probability of being stuck in an abusive situation), and the dismantling of institutional avenues to address gender-based violence.
Unfortunately, the response from the international community has been muted. Nearly half of the U.N.’s funding request of $4.4 billion for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan remains unmet. In fifteen months, the U.S. has spent $567 million—a figure which pales in comparison to the $100 billion they were spending annually when they were funding a war on Afghan soil. U.N. officials are warning that, if insufficient action is taken now, “next year we’ll be asking for $10 billion.”
Part of the reason for this muted response is that the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine – however, we must remember that international humanitarian assistance must flow equally to all nations in conflict. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said, “Humanitarian assistance has to flow no matter how many other crises compete with Afghanistan around the world.”
Another reason is that the global focus on Afghanistan in the past decades has been seen inordinately through the lens of American counterterrorism activities. The U.S. war against the Taliban on Afghan soil was motivated not because of the Taliban’s human rights abuses and repression of women but because of their links to Al-Qaeda.
Afghanistan’s dire situation represents one of the most severe and complex human security crises in the world today—one that requires practical and creative action by the international community.
The media’s knee-jerk reaction has been to blame the chaotic and rushed withdrawal of U.S. troops for the entire situation. However, in order to be effective, aid must flow not through U.S. missions but through U.N. operations under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.
A neutral approach, where the international community is on neither the political side but solely with the civilian population, has been shown to be far more effective at brokering a stable peace than the previous U.S. policy did. It recognizes both parties to a conflict as legitimate actors while delegitimizing human rights abuse and war crimes on both sides. The neutral humanitarian intervention creates space and incentives for both parties to come to the peace table. And it comes at the moral behest of the entire international community rather than simply the United States.
The mode of aid flow must focus on helping Afghans rebuild sustainable livelihoods and protect basic healthcare and education—these goals must be pursued despite the Taliban’s lack of interest in their core governing responsibilities. There are no easy or simple solutions, but there are a number of ways the international community can act. Human rights groups such as Refugees International and Human Rights Watch have begun publishing guidelines for international aid to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, especially assistance intended to benefit Afghan women and girls. These guidelines include support for “community-based education” that bypasses the Taliban and allows girls to learn outside the formal education system and financial assistance to civil society groups and communities that fight for women’s rights and freedoms.
Afghan women and girls are being wiped from sight. The world must not compound their invisibility by neglecting to come to their aid.