Afghan women have been forced into seclusion in recent months to keep their families safe in the face of insecurity, targeted violence against women, Taliban threats and the devastating impact of COVID-19. Recent Taliban attacks on infrastructure have made communication tricky — even beyond the longstanding bandwidth issues.
Some may say that the challenges Afghan women and girls face are no longer our concern in the United States. Yet, our values and our security depend on them. If we want to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for extremism and threats against the United States, then upholding the rights and opportunities of these women — and so many like them — is the clearest way to do it.
Studies continually show that when women and girls hold equal and active roles in society, countries are more secure and stable. They are better allies and partners on the global stage.
Afghan women and girls have seized every opportunity over the past two decades to push for a brighter future for their country. Between 2001 and 2002, just 900,000 boys were enrolled in school, and girls were excluded from formal education opportunities. Now, more than 9.2 million students are enrolled, including 3.5 million female students. Afghan public approval of women’s suffrage is at a record high of 89.3 percent.
While women were virtually invisible in the workforce in 2001, they now make up approximately 21 percent of it. And 28 percent of the Afghan legislative body is composed of women leaders — above the global average.
Afghanistan cannot succeed — cannot build its economy, educate its population, foster good governance and so much more — if it doesn’t harness the intellect, creativity and leadership of half its population. And what happens to women and girls in Afghanistan will demonstrate to our allies and adversaries alike the true nature of America’s commitment to freedom, fairness and constitutional order.
As the Biden administration pivots its foreign policy toward Russia and China, a free and stable Afghanistan should remain a strategic priority.
The U.S. government can demonstrate that commitment through key actions.
First, through financial and institutional support of the Afghan national defense and security forces, including women’s participation and leadership in security sector institutions. Intelligence sharing and atrocity prevention measures will be important as Taliban attacks increase.
The U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department should set budgetary targets to maintain and advance the status of women and girls across the country and stakeholders from all sectors should ensure their investments include education, economic empowerment and leadership development, with increased emphasis on innovation and STEM.
Support from the State Department and other diplomatic actors for greater integration of women into peace processes is crucial, as is increased collaboration with allies and regional stakeholders in protecting the Afghan population.
Afghans whose lives are in danger because of their work with the international community should be provided a safe haven. The U.S. should commit to expedited processing of special immigrant visas, protection of those evacuated to third party countries, expansion of emergency resources for women human rights defenders, as well as a significant increase in the annual refugee cap for Asia.
As former first lady Laura Bush said in 2001 when she first encouraged the world to stand in solidarity with Afghan women, “Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it's the acceptance of our common humanity, a commitment shared by people of good will on every continent.” Two decades later these words are even more important — for the security of Afghanistan and the U.S.
History will judge us based on what we do — or don’t do — to support Afghanistan’s 38 million people during this critical time. We are already seeing the effects of serious risk to women and girls, and we must ask what we as Americans are willing to accept. Actions speak louder than words, and the world is watching.
Meanwhile, Afghan women continue to show up — they always do.
Near the end of a recent video chat with some of the Afghan women we partner with via our gender equity work at the George W. Bush Institute, they briefly offered a glimpse of their waving children seated in their laps. The smiles exuded hope and courage amid the growing uncertainty in their country, and, despite the darkness, we found light in our shared experiences as human beings.