Afghan Women Contemplate a Future Without US Troops
Activists and NGOs imagine what Afghanistan will be like after September 11, when the last US soldiers leave the country
Raziya Masumi lived in Iran until the age of 13. When she and her family returned to Afghanistan in 2002, they found what she describes as a “nightmare.” There was no potable water and no electricity, and women were forbidden to go to school or to be independent. She could not have imagined then that she eventually would study law and serve as a lawyer with the country’s human rights commission, where she dealt with cases of violence against women.
“I was struggling with my circumstances. I was dealing with people who were against me and I received death threats for my work. We, as women in Afghanistan, were fighting for our rights. This was our goal,” she told The Media Line. “We thought that if we don’t take a step right now, nothing is going to change.”
One such change was getting a million signatures in support of a law criminalizing violence against females, which would eventually pass Afghan’s parliament.
Now in her first year studying international and European law at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, Masumi hopes to establish a legal research institute for Afghanistan in Europe and then return to Afghanistan to work as lawyer specializing in international law.
Masumi believes that it is a “big mistake” for the US to withdraw its last 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by September 11, a decision US President Joe Biden announced last week. This year marks the 20th anniversary since US troops invaded Afghanistan in what has become America’s longest war. Masumi says a withdrawal will erode the progress Afghanistan has made regarding women’s rights and that the US should stay another two years to three years, which is when she believes Afghan troops will be able to handle the security situation.
“The purpose of the current peace is for the Taliban to exert more of their extremist religious beliefs over Afghanistan. They don’t care about human rights standards, which most of our constitution is based on,” she said.
“They say women cannot be journalists or teachers. They talk about 13-year-old girls not singing in public because it is haram [forbidden] in Islam,” Masumi continued. “The situation is getting worse day by day. We witnessed many human rights activists targeted by unknown gunmen, even after the peace talks. We lost talented young people … they were doctors, students … helping bring about a better future for Afghanistan.”
Professional women also have been targeted. In March, for example, three female employees of a news broadcast station were assassinated in Jalalabad.
I myself fear for the future of women in Afghanistan, but this time the Taliban are ready for a peace deal. It’s a good opportunity to take the risk
Adila Ahmadi, an advisor to Afghanistan’s State Minister of Peace Sayed Sadat Mansoor Naderi, sees things differently. While she is concerned about what the prospects are for women in her country, she believes the Taliban is the most serious it has ever been about a peace deal.
“I myself fear for the future of women in Afghanistan, but this time the Taliban are ready for a peace deal. It’s a good opportunity to take the risk, so we are hopeful for that,” she told The Media Line.
Ahmadi says that much of what life will be like for women will depend on the actions of the Afghan government in the upcoming peace talks in Turkey, which on Tuesday were further postponed until after the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
“If the government makes good decisions regarding women’s rights, then it will be a little easier to guess the situation after the US troop withdrawal in September. But, as we have observed, the Taliban’s nature hasn’t been changed. It’s difficult to handle the thought of Afghanistan going back 20 years,” she said.
In order to not turn back the clock on women’s achievement, the international community must draw a “red line” in the peace talks that protects Afghan’s female population, Ahmadi says.
NGOs and human rights groups also are concerned about what life will be like for women in Afghanistan after US troops leave.
“I think it is hard to know exactly what the impact will be, but I think it is quite clear the impact is not going to be good,” Heather Barr, interim co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line. “I think what you see when you listen to Afghan women and activists, people are trying to be hopeful and pull together,” she said. “But looming over these discussions is the fact that many people are predicting a serious escalation of violence.”
“That seems like it’s going to be hard to avoid; there’s already a very high and intolerable level of violence in Afghanistan but that doesn’t mean things couldn’t get worse,” she added.
Barr says that there also is concern about increased Taliban power, which has grown steadily over the last ten years. The primary concerns for women under the Taliban involve education and access to health care.
“One important change since 2001 is that the Taliban supports at least primary education for girls. We see in practice that this is not necessarily something followed – some commanders don’t allow it, but it is the official position that primary education should be permitted,” she said.
According to Barr, 40% of primary school and lower secondary school-age children already were not in school before the pandemic and while there is no updated data on figures today, the situation has become worse. Some 66% percent of the lower secondary school-age children, or ages 12 through 15, not attending school are female.
People are running for the exits. I hope the same countries that are deciding whether or not to give aid are also going to be deciding whether or not to accept refugees, and we’ve already seen what kind of a record most of them have on that … but they should prepare for the fact that the crisis that’s happening in Afghanistan will wash up on their own shores
Late last week, HRW called on countries withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan to keep their financial commitments to humanitarian concerns.
Barr says that 75% of the Afghan government’s budget comes from overseas. These donors help fund government schools and community-based education classes, usually coordinated by NGOs, that take place in informal settings such as a private home. Classes in homes are especially important for girls.
International dollars also fund the World Bank-led program responsible for providing basic health-care services to the Afghan population. Barr says that the initiative is a $600 million effort that started in 2018 and is scheduled to end next year.
“On June 30, 2022, Afghans are not going to stop needing health care and countries that have sent their troops home shouldn’t feel like: ‘That’s not my problem anymore,’” Barr said. “People are running for the exits. I hope the same countries that are deciding whether or not to give aid are also going to be deciding whether or not to accept refugees, and we’ve already seen what kind of a record most of them have on that … but they should prepare for the fact that the crisis that’s happening in Afghanistan will wash up on their own shores.”
The consequences of decreased funding is already being seen, such as in hospitals that no longer have the supplies they need to provide care for free. Instead, free government hospitals are forcing patients to purchase supplies before they can receive treatment. Women are especially vulnerable to cuts in health care.
Health care is a cost out of reach for many Afghans, due to a poverty rate that has been rising over the last decade. The poverty rate now stands at between 61% and 72% as a result of the pandemic, according to the World Bank. In 2011, the country’s poverty rate was 38%.
It’s not like 2,500 troops are going to be withdrawn and suddenly everything is dramatically different from one day to the next … the fight will go on. These girls and women need to be tough and resilient and smart and find ways to keep defending themselves and pushing for their rights
Marina LeGree is executive director of Ascend Afghanistan, an American NGO that seeks to help girls advance in Afghan society through sports-focused leadership guidance. While she is worried about the future for women in Afghanistan, she also is optimistic.
“We, like so many nonprofits that work in Afghanistan, are in it for the long haul and we are cautiously watching what the impact will be, but we have no plans to go anywhere or change what we do,” she told The Media Line. “We often hear about and see in the media discussions of old men and yes, they are, for the most part, in positions of power … I’m not wringing my hands and saying all hope is lost … because of a political decision.”
“Afghans themselves have tremendous potential and possibility,” LeGree added. “Our girls are a small number, but they are part of a huge movement of Afghan youth that are not willing to take a step backwards, so let’s not forget about them.”
She says that her organization has been focusing on additional training, as well as informing girls of what their rights are and what the law says.
LeGree, however, says that the future for women in Afghanistan is not something that can be determined by foreign forces.
“It’s not like 2,500 troops are going to be withdrawn and suddenly everything is dramatically different from one day to the next … the fight will go on. These girls and women need to be tough and resilient and smart and find ways to keep defending themselves and pushing for their rights. I think they will,” she said.
She adds: “There was never a military solution that was going to fix this problem of women’s rights not being respected.”