Afghan Women and Girls Must Not Be Abandoned
By Alice Dahle, AIUSA Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group, Chair
At the abrupt departure from Afghanistan of US and NATO military forces in August 2021, Afghan civilians rushed to leave the country as the Taliban quickly moved in to fill the power vacuum. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes in hopes of leaving the country before the borders closed. Those who had held government jobs or worked closely with international military troops were anxious to leave for fear of reprisals. But journalists, artists, academics, legal professionals, human rights defenders and others who were well aware their work would make them targets of the Taliban were also desperate to find a way out. Lack of time and fear of going out on the streets to visit embassies meant that many tried to leave without proper documents. Others had to destroy their documents to avoid detection and detention or “disappearance”. Only a limited number of flights managed to leave the country before the Kabul airport was shut down. As a result, many Afghans who feared for their lives were left behind.
Within the year following the takeover by the Taliban, more than 76,000 Afghans were evacuated to the United States. Most of these were granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to live and work in the US for one or two years, but does not give them permanent residence status. The expiration of those humanitarian paroles is fast approaching, and those who hold them will need to seek asylum in order to stay in the US permanently. There is currently a long backlog of asylum seekers in the US, and the process can take years.
A majority of those who were successful in reaching the US on humanitarian parole were in some way connected with the US military in Afghanistan. They served as interpreters, mechanics and in other supporting roles while American troops were there. In return for their service to the US, Congress needs to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide permanent residence and a path to citizenship for Afghans living here with temporary status.
Passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act would be a good first step toward providing a secure future for Afghan evacuees with strong ties to US military forces and the family members who were able to leave with them. However, many Afghans who are vulnerable to retribution at the hands of the Taliban remain at home and at risk. Among those most threatened are legal, academic, media and artistic professionals, ethnic minorities, human rights defenders, and especially women and girls.
Since the first ouster of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women had made significant progress with claiming and exercising their rights. The number of girls attending school rose substantially. Women became lawyers, judges, journalists, professors, entrepreneurs and elected officials, who took an active and visible part in public life. They created a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a network of shelters and services for survivors of domestic violence. In 2009, the Afghan parliament passed the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which made 22 acts of abuse against women criminal offenses.
When the Taliban again took control of the country in 2021, they stated that they would respect the rights of women and girls. However, they immediately began to impose restrictions on almost every facet of their lives. Women who worked outside their homes lost their jobs. Education was strictly segregated by sex and is no longer available to girls beyond 6th grade. Women must be covered from head to toe and accompanied by a male chaperone when they go out in public, and they have been told not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. They have essentially been erased from public spaces.
The country’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs has become the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice under the Taliban. The legal system has been replaced by the Taliban’s interpretation of Shari’a law. Women and girls who commit minor infractions of the new rules, which are not uniformly or clearly defined, are subject to arbitrary detention on charges of “moral corruption”. Since women have lost their incomes and the Afghan economy has collapsed, rates of child, early and forced marriage have surged. Brave women and girls who dare to peacefully protest the unjust restrictions on their rights to education, work, freedom of movement, association, peaceful assembly and free expression are harassed, beaten and assaulted with electric shocks with tasers. Some of the protesters and women who held high-profile jobs under the previous government have gone into hiding and move continuously between homes of trusted friends and relatives and safehouses provided by international and national organizations to avoid being located by the Taliban.
In March 2022, Amnesty International researched life for women and girls under Taliban rule through a series of interviews. Several of those interviewed expressed their anger and disappointment with the silence and inaction of the international community in view of the injustices imposed on them by the Taliban. One of the women who spoke with the researchers remarked that she felt Afghan women had been sentenced to “death in slow motion”, which became the title of the report.
In spite of the discrimination and repression Afghan women and girls currently endure, they continue to demand their dignity, respect and human rights. We in the international community must stand in solidarity with them and let them know they are not alone. We must ensure that their voices are heard and encourage our government officials to do more to restore the Afghan economy, provide funding for alternative education for girls shut out of school, facilitate resettlement for those who wish to leave, and condition interaction with the Taliban on restoration of the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls. We must support the courageous Afghan women and girls who have demanded their human rights so long under such difficult circumstances. Defending their rights is also defending our own.