What US betrayal of Afghan women means on International Women’s Day

AP Photo/Ahmad Halabisaz

This is the second time in just over six months that we are watching scenes of unspeakable violence on our screens. The rolling coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows men and women taking up arms, mobilizing resistance and delivering food and supplies to the vulnerable. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing to the borders, desperate to escape the violence and chaos of war. The numbers are only expected to rise.

Thousands of miles to the southeast, similar pictures of Afghan men, women and children are trekking across the mountains, trying to escape starvation and terror. The world in 2022 is looking bleak.

Today is International Women’s Day. Every March 8th, the international community takes stock of the status of women and girls. With global conflict raging, we must reflect this year on how women fare in times of war and instability. Often, they are portrayed as only helpless, passive victims, when this couldn’t be further than the truth. They are central players in protecting, defending and rebuilding peace. They see firsthand what armed conflict does to their communities and research shows they have the solutions. However, all too often, they are sidelined, and their views and voices are ignored.

Today in the U.S., you will hear lofty declarations about the government’s commitment to global women’s rights. Of the importance of gender equality to global prosperity, and the right of every woman to live a fully empowered life. But against a backdrop of Afghan women returning to life under the Taliban and all the horrors that go with it, those declarations ring hollow. To Afghan women, the U.S. is no longer a reliable partner. Women around the world, especially in conflict regions, are also wondering whether they should look elsewhere for support.

Until recently, the U.S. was seen as a world leader in gender equality, passing legislation to promote and protect women in conflict and peacebuilding. Its Strategy on Women, Peace and Security was exemplary in recognizing the importance of placing women at the center of peace and security policy. But Afghanistan was its first test, and it failed. Despite having all the tools needed to listen and act on what Afghan women leaders were saying before, during and since the withdrawal of troops, the administration has neglected to use them.  

It is true that Afghanistan is a unique case. The brutality and persecution of women and girls shown by the Taliban are unmatched. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are banned from school and where women are not allowed to leave the house without a male chaperone. And so it is easy for people outside the country to dismiss the lessons from Afghanistan as overly extreme.

But it is also true that the U.S. bears unique responsibility for Afghan women. It encouraged and invested in a new generation of leaders and activists, committed to the values of democracy and equity. Women took up the mantle of leadership with skill and passion and partnered with the U.S. on projects in every field from education and healthcare to rule of law — often at great danger to themselves and their families. Imagine their shock when they were ignored and left behind during the chaos of the largest evacuation operation in American history.

One of the reasons the women, peace and security agenda is so critical is that it applies a gender lens to conflict operations. Operation Allies Welcome, along with the entire U.S. withdrawal, lacked that lens. By prioritizing primarily Afghans who were employed by the U.S. military, a population that is overwhelmingly male, the U.S. unwittingly deprioritized partners and allies who are female. (Evacuating those who supported the military was absolutely essential, but it was the bare minimum and even that response was woefully inadequate.) Even today, with the Taliban actively searching for, detaining and torturing women activists and leaders, there are almost no legal pathways to safety out of the country and into the U.S.

The overtly gendered crisis in Afghanistan is the most direct example of why the voices and experiences of women are so essential. But women around the world are facing similar challenges. Like their Afghan counterparts, Ukrainian women leaders have been trying to take an active role in the security of their country. For months, they have been advocating for women’s full participation in Track I and Track II negotiations to advance a more comprehensive approach to the security of the region.

Just a few weeks ago, Kateryna Levchenko, Government Commissioner for Gender Equality Policy, told an expert discussion, hosted by Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security that “a Russian invasion of Ukraine can cause a migration crisis spurring up to 5 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe where the majority would be women and girls.”

It is doubtful that the Ukrainian women will look to the U.S. for support. If we can tolerate a situation where Afghan women are deleted from public life and refuse to acknowledge that women leaders need special protection from the Taliban, the U.S.’ credibility as champions of women’s rights is found wanting. No more does this sting than on International Women’s Day.

Without a gender lens on conflict, we are gender blind, ignorant of the challenges women face in war. To state the painfully obvious, blindness means you can’t see. And what you can’t see you can’t fix. On Afghanistan, this blindness will haunt the U.S. for years.   

Teresa Casale is deputy executive director of Mina’s List, which has worked in Afghanistan since 2014 on advancing women’s participation in political leadership and the peace process.

Tags Al-Qaeda fall of kabul Gender Equality Policy Taliban War in Afghanistan Women in Afghanistan

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