When the Taliban returned to power last August, many wondered if the previous two decades of progress and change in Afghanistan would temper the group’s previously draconian policies. But despite some initial rhetoric that hinted in the direction of reform, the Taliban have recommitted — rather than reconsidered — their repressive approach to governance. Over the last 11 months, the group has instituted massive rollbacks for women’s rights, as well as pushed marginalized groups further to the periphery in a country mired in economic and humanitarian crises.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking at USIP about the launch of the new U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking at USIP about the launch of the new U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism.

However, “the women and girls of Afghanistan and other vulnerable targeted people have simply refused to back down,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

What these groups need now is a venue that elevates their voices. “They have lost their platform in Afghanistan,” said Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights. “They are seeking a place, a platform, to bring their voices together” now that women leaders and activists “are scattered all over the world.”

To help coordinate and deepen Afghan engagement with U.S. government officials, the State Department has launched the U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism (USACM). Comprised of various Afghan women’s coalitions, as well as civil society leaders, journalists, academics and religious scholars from inside and outside Afghanistan, the USACM will inform U.S. policy on issues ranging from documentation of human rights violations to the role of women in Islam.

“What we want to do is to make our partnerships with Afghan civil society more effective, more rigorous, more productive, more purposeful,” said Blinken as he introduced the USACM at a USIP event.

Constricting Women’s Role in Afghan Society

The launch of the USACM comes as the situation on the ground for Afghan women and girls continues to worsen. Prior to the fall of the former government, women and girls had expanded their access to education and economic mobility. Women comprised 38 percent of teachers, and 3,000 licensed and 54,000 unlicensed small-to-medium Afghan businesses were run by women. Women and girls “didn’t just study at schools, they ran them,” said Blinken.

But since August 2021, the Taliban have rapidly constricted women’s and girl’s freedoms, leading to a 75 percent drop in women’s employment compared to pre-takeover levels. Additionally, the Taliban have reinstated requirements for face coverings and drastically reduced women’s ability to travel freely or alone.

On the education front, the Taliban have ordered universities to enforce gender-segregated classrooms. And after originally assuring both Afghan girls and the West that girls’ education would reopen in March, the Taliban abruptly reversed course and the ban for girls in grades seven and up remained in place. The decrees have wrought havoc and often come without warning — many girls learned of the education ban as they arrived for their first day of classes.

The results have been devastating. Domestic violence is on the rise as women are further confined to their homes, with little agency to venture beyond their neighborhood. Some women, hit particularly hard by the economic crisis, have been cut off from accessing humanitarian aid as each Taliban decree constricts their movements more and more.  

A Devastated Afghan Economy

Meanwhile, the sudden removal of women from the workforce has only worsened Afghanistan’s economic woes. The per capita income in Afghanistan in 2022 is expected to drop by 50 percent compared to a decade prior. This will be disproportionately devastating for women, “because as we all know, the last penny is spent on women in any household,” said Naheed Sarabi, the former deputy minister for policy at the Afghan Ministry of Finance.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s GDP is expected to fall by 5 percent, equivalent to roughly $1 billion. Sarabi says the rollback of women’s rights can be seen as one of the main drivers: “You’re losing the economic contribution of half of the population of Afghanistan … half the human capital of the country.”

For a country on the verge of famine and economic collapse, the Taliban’s decision to revert to the oppressive policies of decades past could prove catastrophic — not just for women and girls, but for all of Afghanistan’s future stability.

“Walking away is not a choice that any of us have,” said Amiri. “Not only from a moral imperative, but also from a strategic imperative,” as a fragile Afghanistan poses security risks to the region and international community at large.  

The Taliban are Not the Only Reality

Afghanistan is a notably diverse country, with a wide range of cultural and ethnic groups that call it home. But many Afghan women worry that the international focus on the Taliban has drowned out that fact — especially given the Taliban’s unwillingness to reform. 

Whether to engage with the Taliban — and how much — has been a difficult needle to thread for U.S. officials. “I continue to maintain that engagement with the Taliban is necessary, particularly to address the situation of Afghans inside the country that are facing a desperate situation,” said Amiri. But at the same time, she said, “I don’t want to give them space to present to the world that they’re engaging in good faith on these issues” when they continue to rollback progress and backtrack on prior assurances.

The troubling reality is that the Taliban control Afghanistan’s government. However, “the Taliban are the reality of the country, but they are not the only reality,” said Asila Wardak, a senior fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and a founding member of the Women’s Forum on Afghanistan.

Even with the crackdown on civil society, women’s groups are still making things possible “from very scratch, from nothing,” said Palwasha Hassan, a founding member of the Afghan Women’s Network and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security. “In those places that have been affected by the earthquake, woman have gone there not only to bring services, but also to try to engage with the local Taliban” on women’s and girl’s issues.

A New Consultative Mechanism

The persistence of these women and civil society groups has shown diverse voices still resonate throughout Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s best attempts to tamp them down. But in the face of a repressive regime, these voices need assistance to ensure they are heard.

“It's very important that the international community doesn't speak for Afghans,” said Hassan. Instead, the United States and others should “help Afghan themselves to be part of their own solution.”

In a hopeful development, forums offering this kind of platform have popped up around the world. But as these venues propagate, there’s concern that Afghan women and civil society leaders could end up “having separate, repetitive conversations,” said Amiri.

To help alleviate this propensity for repetition, the USACM combines the efforts of forums hosted by USIP; the Atlantic Council; the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security; and the Sisterhood is Global Institute.

“We are building on the feedback we’ve received,” said Amiri, adding that the United States doesn’t have to “start from zero,” but can instead partner with “platforms that have been engaging Afghans for decades.”

The consolidation is “shaping all these informal discussions into a formal discussion and shows the commitment of the U.S. government,” said Wardak. “We would like to be kind of a bridge between the woman inside Afghanistan and the woman in the diaspora and exile.”

Where Afghanistan Goes from Here

“Afghan women have told me it's not just the Taliban that's hurting women right now,” added Amiri. “It is the fact that donor funding has dried up and has left Afghan women in a very desperate situation.”

For Sarabi, the immediate solution is rather straightforward: “Political, social and economic empowerment go hand in hand … What woman need right now, short term, is access to finance in cash. Cash distribution could be a way to uplift them from the current poverty level, quickly.”

Hassan agreed that human rights and economic realities are intertwined for women in Afghanistan. “They are also concerned how to feed [their] children,” she said, noting that child marriage is on the rise because there is “no alternative” for some people. 

While straightforward, this solution faces a major hurdle: With the Taliban in charge, most donors no longer have a presence on the ground in Afghanistan, leaving them unable to monitor or administer programs.

To circumvent this issue, Afghan women suggest that mechanisms like the USACM connect international donors with local organizations to divvy up responsibilities. “There is room for … local organizations to be direct implementers” while “international organization can play the role of monitoring, evaluations and even capacity building,” said Hassan.

Beyond immediate economic needs, Hassan said that as long as the Taliban continue to block girls’ education, “It's important that we have alternatives for girls in Afghanistan that they can benefit from.” NGOs and other organizations have orchestrated peer-to-peer learning, online education, scholarships and home-schooling initiatives, “but they should not be considered a substitute for an education sector in Afghanistan or formal education,” added Hassan.

Because while international donors and local Afghan organizations can find ways to work around the Taliban’s harsh restrictions, women and girls won’t be able to fully regain their livelihoods and rights without the Taliban sanctioning their official return.

“[The international community] has the the financial leverage, the political leverage, the economic leverage to pressure the Taliban on behalf of the women's movement, girls, education and protection of civil society organizations,” said Wardak.

Secretary Blinken acknowledged this, saying the United States continues “to urge the Taliban to reverse their decision on girls’ education, to make good on their commitment to the Afghan people, to allow girls to learn.”

But rather than incentivize the Taliban solely through punitive measures from international actors, Blinken added that the Taliban should reverse course because it’s the will of the people they govern —and the Taliban’s tactics to suppress it aren’t working: “In the face of threats, violence, [and] intimidation, the women and girls of Afghanistan and other vulnerable, targeted people … have never stopped believing in a brighter future for their country. They are determined to do all they can to make that future real.”

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