Not all Afghan women were able to escape the Taliban’s takeover. But a coalition is helping to ensure that they have the resources to continue to fight for their future.
With the Taliban now back in full control of Afghanistan two decades after being ousted in a U.S.-led invasion, Afghans are fearful for the country’s future and this is especially true for women. Many still haven’t forgotten what it was like to live under the Taliban’s authoritative rule two decades ago when women were denied education, employment, and the ability to freely leave their homes without a male escort or relative.
But one coalition is making sure that the gains Afghan women have made don’t get completely erased. Vital Voices Global Partnership, which was co-founded by Hillary Clinton, has teamed up with Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (GIWPS); Women for Women International; and various trusted on-the-ground humanitarian organizations to provide continued support through an emergency fund, where 100 percent of donations go toward helping Afghan women and girls.
“What we’re hoping, especially with the work that we’re doing right now, is that we know that the women who are the most targeted and at risk are also those women who have been and will continue to be the leaders of Afghan women and the shining example of when you invest in women leaders, you change the world,” Vital Voices chief development officer Liam T. Dall told KCM.
In the immediate aftermath, the group has banded together to evacuate Afghan women who were most at risk of being victimized by the Taliban, including women’s rights activists, journalists, educators, and human rights defenders. Since many women and their families fled with just the clothes on their backs, the advocates are also facilitating the transition process by working with countries where these women and their families have been sent to make sure they have the basics like food, clothing, childcare, healthcare, Covid-19 prevention, and treatment as well psychosocial support. This has been done in large part through a global network of 18,000 women leaders from 184 countries.
But what about the women left behind? Many of them weren’t able to leave the country for various reasons, whether because they had issues with their visa or weren’t able to make arrangements before the end of the evacuation period. But the coalition remains “absolutely committed” to continuing to support Afghan women, according to Marie Clarke, who is vice president for programs at Women for Women International.
While Dall says the coalition is also “still working on evacuations and considering all options,” those who are still there are terrified for their lives — and for the lives of their families. “We’re hearing from Afghan women all over the country, but many from Kabul are having their homes invaded, their organizations are being looted,” Jessica Smith, a research and policy manager at GIWPS, told us. “They are fearing for their lives and their families.”
Upon regaining control, Taliban leaders have insisted that this time will be different, but this doesn’t really appear to be the case. They’ve instructed women to stay home from work because Taliban soldiers are “not trained” to respect them, and though they’ll be allowed to go to universities, unlike last time, they won’t be able to study alongside men.
Some foreign policy experts believe that part of the Taliban’s efforts to cast themselves as more tolerant toward women is because they’re seeking international legitimacy. Laurel Miller, the Asia program director for the nonprofit International Crisis Group, told NPR that the Taliban “have been very eager for public displays of their acceptance by governments around the world.” In the weeks leading up to their takeover in Kabul, the Islamic group met with officials in Iran, Russia, and China to discuss the fate of Afghanistan.
But Smith doesn’t expect the Taliban’s return to power to ultimately be any different. Even though the Taliban pledged that women would have rights “within the bounds of Islamic law,” she said it’s such an extreme interpretation that it “doesn’t translate into women and girls being safe and free.” That’s why her institute believes it’ll be critical to continue evacuation efforts and find ways to support them. “So often it’s women and girls that are left behind or marginalized in a crisis or in the aftermath of a crisis or a war, they’re the last to be thought of, and that just cannot be the case this time,” she said.
The next major concern in Afghanistan is hunger — the groups warn that the country is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis due to limited resources. Clarke explained that farming has taken a hit due to the instability in the region and food prices are already skyrocketing. “We’re already seeing examples of people who are going hungry,” she told us. “And certainly if you’re a single woman or you’re a widow and you don’t have a male relative, going outside for food is increasingly dangerous.”
Women for Women International has been in Afghanistan since 2002, a year after the U.S. invaded the country. With a completely Afghan team, the organization has been helping women there claim their power both inside and outside the home. This includes teaching women financial know-how like how to balance the family budget and training them how to start their own business. Ultimately, while the Taliban may take away their freedoms, Clarke said that the skills and empowerment they’ve found can’t be taken away from them.
As for what’s next, Clarke believes there will be a lot more movement out of the country, especially in light of an agreement that the U.S. and 97 other countries made with the Taliban to allow for the continued evacuation of remaining Afghan allies and Americans. Drawing comparisons to war-torn South Sudan, she said women will ultimately be able to take the tools they’ve learned with them wherever they go, creating “new spaces for being able to do the important work.”
“The way it’s often framed as is that the absence of the Taliban sort of allowed to spring forth women’s rights, but actually it’s been 20 years of women organizing and working to claim their rights that had brought them this far,” she said.
Interested in donating to the emergency fund? You can check it out here. There are also other ways of showing your support — you can also sign a petition, call your Congressperson, or raise awareness by taking to social media.
Smith believes this ongoing support for Afghan women and girls will be critical in the coming months. “There’s going to need to be ongoing attention to what has happened for the Afghan women and girls and the families that have been able to get out of the country safely, but also to continue to shine a spotlight on the women and girls that are left behind,” she said.