A few months ago, I met with dozens of Afghan women, hoping to interview them about life in Afghanistan. As a humanitarian practitioner, I knew they faced inequality and brutality under the Taliban, but even I wasn't prepared for the stories of profound suffering and discrimination they shared.
Afghanistan's women face challenges nearly unheard of in the developed world. Thousands per year die during childbirth, and an Afghan woman's life expectancy is just 51 years. Nearly nine in 10 Afghan women are illiterate and have no formal education. Birth control is nonexistent, with an average woman birthing six children. And thanks to widespread poverty and starvation, one out of 10 children die before their fifth birthday.
The only good news is that conditions — largely thanks to U.S. and international intervention — have improved significantly in recent years. And while Afghan women are nowhere close to attaining free, equitable lives, they desperately need our continued support. Withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan would plunge these women back into an even deeper quagmire of despair, violence, and poverty.
How did conditions get this bad for Afghan women? Once upon a time, Afghanistan was a thriving, relatively progressive Middle Eastern nation. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, many Afghans fled to rural areas, such as the Pakistani province North Waziristan. These refugees were aided by the Taliban, which won support with more efficient social infrastructure than local governments could provide.
Then, after the Soviet Union withdrew in the late 1980s, the power vacuum plunged the country into civil war. The Taliban succeeded in taking Kandahar province, driving the Western-backed Mujahideen farther northward in the nation. By creating a short peace and providing some basic necessities to the Afghan people, the Taliban garnered greater support for its "revolution" that led to the institution of sharia.
Make no mistake: The Taliban's enforcement of its brutal brand of sharia has led to egregious repression of women's rights. Today, more than half of all Afghan girls are forced to marry by age 12, and nearly 60 percent are married by age 16. If women dare to speak out, seek an education or demand their rights, these "transgressions" lead to severe reprisals. Public stoning, rape, mutilation and forced prostitution are all common consequences.
Although Afghan women continue to endure these heinous conditions, American forces have made a difference. Through U.S. nation-building support, thousands of women have attained access to education and healthcare. Today, 40 percent of Afghan children who attend school are girls, and 75,000 Afghans attend universities — 35 percent of which are women. Now, 65 percent of Afghans have access to basic healthcare, compared to 8 percent during Taliban rule. This progress has been facilitated by a U.S. investment of approximately $17 billion since 2002, dedicated to improving Afghans' access to healthcare, a better standard of living and gender equality.
In the field, U.S. forces have reached out to Afghan women through Female Engagement and Cultural Support Teams and special operations woman-soldier cultural support teams. Moreover, citizen-led initiatives like the United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) Promote and the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women have helped ground forces empower young Afghan women through higher education and community development initiatives.
Plainly put, U.S. intervention has done a lot of good in Afghanistan. But if we withdraw, those gains will disappear, and Taliban-fueled violence and oppression against Afghan women will rise. Without our support, Afghanistan will not be able to sustain the social programs or progress of recent years. Particularly, the brave women who sought education and healthcare will find it incredibly difficult and dangerous to return to their former lives. I know this to be true — women have told me that they are afraid, and without protection from U.S. forces, many are quite sure they'll be targeted and made examples of by the Taliban.
Today, the women of Afghanistan need our help more than ever. We have willing allies in these women who want peace and stability more than anything. And when these women succeed, their families succeed, lifting entire communities up right alongside them. I have seen glimmers of hope, but if those glimmers are to shine bright enough to drive out the darkness of female oppression, we must provide safety and security to the women of Afghanistan striving to rebuild their nation.
Chang is CEO of Linking the World, an international humanitarian organization that advocates for and provides aid to areas of instability, conflict and disaster. She also serves as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point, where she assists with the development of community-focused academic programs in areas requiring humanitarian assistance.