The Taliban takeover in the summer of 2021 profoundly altered the trajectory of Afghanistan. While the impact has been felt across the country, no population has been more affected than Afghan women and girls. Over the last two decades, Afghan women changed the status quo and created a new, more empowered reality for themselves. They did so with support and encouragement from the United States, other NATO countries, and many other UN member states.
Since 2001, Afghan women have struggled against great odds to advance their rights and exercise their agency. Significant numbers of Afghan women went to school. They entered professions including journalism, politics, health care, law enforcement, and business. They developed networks to support one another, created non-governmental organizations, and led the growth of a robust civil society.
However, the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent seizure of power by the Taliban profoundly altered the lives of women and girls, especially in Afghanistan’s major population centers. As Kabul fell, it became painfully clear that there was no contingency plan on the part of the United States and its allies to continue meaningful support for the rights and needs of Afghan women. This failure was particularly acute for women leaders who had championed these rights, often with the backing of the United States and its allies.
Efforts to evacuate Afghans who had fought alongside the United States and other NATO militaries were not matched by a similar effort for women leaders – many of whom were under direct threat from the Taliban. In this absence, a coalition of private actors stepped in to get some of the most prominent and at-risk women out of the country. Some of these Afghan women leaders have made it to Canada or other final destinations. Others continue to languish in transit countries. Yet many more at-risk women remain behind in Afghanistan – often because they had no way out.
The truth of the matter is that refuge abroad is not an option for most Afghan women and girls. The Taliban assault on their rights is only one of the challenges they now face. The collapse of the Afghan economy and the ensuing humanitarian crisis have taken the greatest toll on Afghan women and girls. The lack of food, jobs, and even the most basic services like health and education has created a situation bordering on the catastrophic. Millions of Afghan women and girls are internally displaced. International actors—particularly the United States—need to provide tangible support for Afghan women and girls. That support must go beyond the rhetorical and prioritize access to aid and essential services. It should also aim to meet the needs and advance the rights of women and girls.