What’s at Stake for Afghan Women and Girls?

September 22, 2021 By Katherine Larson

As the United States and the world respond to the Taliban takeover and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, many – including members of Congress – have expressed concern for the fate of women and girls, warning about risks to progress in health and education over the past 20 years.

Here’s what is at stake:

  • Risking progress on health: The rate of maternal deaths from childbirth fell by more than half in 2017 compared to 2000 driven by progress in addressing gender inequality, poverty, and provision of health services. Average life expectancy in Afghanistan has increased by 8.5 years since 2001, and infant mortality rates have plummeted, too.
  • Reversing progress on education: In 2001, only 12% of primary-age girls attended a school of some form, but 50% of girls were attending school by 2015. Now the Taliban have “effectively banned girls from secondary education in Afghanistan, by ordering high schools to re-open only for boys” – threatening to reverse progress in girls education.
  • Losing political participation: 27% of Afghan members of parliament were women in 2020, but women appear unlikely to make up any portion of the new Taliban government, which announced an all-male cabinet.

Members of Congress are raising their voices to support and protect Afghan women. In one of many bipartisan letters to Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas, Representatives Grace Meng (D-NY) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) called for the creation of a humanitarian parole program to evacuate “women leaders, activists, human rights defenders, parliamentarians, journalists, and other highly visible women currently at risk.” On September 10, House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-TX) sent a letter to USAID Administrator Samantha Power expressing concern for the “high likelihood of Taliban reprisals, and oppression and abuse of Afghan women and children increasing, soon.”

Broader Humanitarian Crisis

The risks to progress for women and girls take place against the backdrop of a widespread humanitarian crisis.  A combination of drought and the coronavirus pandemic contributed to 14 million people being in severe hunger, according to the World Food Programme.  As of August 26, only 2.4 percent of the Afghan population had been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, while the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that testing dropped by 77 percent in the last week of August.

Secretary of State Blinken emphasized the importance of continued aid to Afghanistan in his testimony in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 13th: “We have an ongoing commitment to use every tool at our disposal through our diplomacy, through our economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, programmatic assistance, to do whatever we can to continue in coordination with many other countries to support women, girls, and minorities in Afghanistan.”

For fiscal year 2022, Congress appropriated $136.45 million in the Economic Support Fund, the source for underwriting Afghan government salaries, and $52.03 million for Afghan humanitarian aid.  The Biden Administration has asked that funds for both resettlement of Afghan refugees and humanitarian aid are included in a Continuing Resolution to ensure ongoing funding.

Challenges Ahead

Long-standing U.S. Government sanctions make illegal all financial assistance that could benefit the Taliban and create legal challenges to providing assistance today. Secretary Blinken has emphasized, “We’ll continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, consistent with sanctions that this aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations like NGOs and UN agencies.”

The Treasury Department Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a specific license for funding to Afghanistan on August 25th, streamlining the humanitarian funding process for U.S. government agencies and contractors. On September 24th, OFAC issued a general license, enabling NGOs and UN agencies to provide humanitarian aid on the ground as well in these challenging circumstances.

These challenges are certain to be more acute for women and girls.  Secretary of State Blinken warned, “while the Taliban seeks and will probably support and protect basic humanitarian assistance through these agencies like for food and medicine, it may be a different story when it comes to things that are directed specifically at women or girls” – and announced that he would be appointing a senior official responsible for focusing and marshalling all of our efforts on support for women, girls, and minorities in Afghanistan.

Humanitarian organizations like International Rescue Committee and Save the Children have also called for prioritizing education as an emergency service, describing it as a lifeline, especially for girls. However, time is of the essence — IRC is warning that almost 4 million children are missing out on school as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of humanitarian collapse.