Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Lessons Learned Program

February 2021

Support for Gender Equality:Lessons from the U.S. Experience in AfghanistanInteractive Summary

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AFP photo by Shah Marai

Afghan women and girls have made substantial gains over the past nearly two decades—especially in access to health care and education, and greater presence in public life. Yet Afghanistan remains one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman—with high maternal mortality ratios, endemic gender-based violence, and still-limited access to education and health care.

U.S. efforts since 2002 to support women, girls, and gender equality in Afghanistan have yielded mixed results. There is broad demand among Afghans for health and education services, and U.S. agencies have responded with well-designed and effective programs. Yet SIGAR’s examination of 24 U.S. gender-related programs also revealed shortcomings. Some programs were designed based on assumptions that proved to be ill-suited to the Afghan context and the challenges that women and girls faced.

This report, the ninth Lessons Learned Program report to be issued by SIGAR, seeks to answer how the United States can best continue to support Afghan women and girls, preserving and expanding on the gains they have made. Woven throughout the report are “Afghan Voices” - insights from a body of 65 interviews conducted with Afghans in 2020, commissioned by SIGAR. Many interviewees voiced praise for U.S. efforts to expand gender equality, but they also cited insecurity, restrictive social norms, and harassment as key constraints to women’s mobility and work.


AFP photo

The story of women in Afghanistan is more complex than the simplistic portrait often painted by Western media: passive victims forced to wear burqas. To effectively support Afghan women and girls and advance gender equality, donors must understand the diverse experiences of Afghan women and girls, in the context of the culture and history that shape gender roles and relations in the country. Afghanistan remains a largely agrarian and impoverished country whose traditional, patriarchal society has historically accorded women subordinate status. Reform efforts date back to the late 19th century, and have met greatest resistance in rural areas. Since 2001, Afghanistan’s gender norms have been buffeted by many viable drivers of change, including economic growth, exposure to new ideas through a boom in media and mobile phone use, the presence of foreigners, as well as legal, programmatic, and activist efforts to push for change.

Gender equality means . . . expanding freedoms and improving overall quality of life so that equality is achieved without sacrificing gains for males or females.

United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy

Key Findings

  • Afghanistan’s restrictive social and cultural norms toward women—who symbolize honor of the family and the nation—predate and transcend the Taliban. The country also remains largely agrarian and has not undergone the development and urbanization that have historically led to greater gender equality in many other countries.
  • Historically, Afghan leaders’ efforts to advance women’s rights have spurred backlash, especially in rural areas, and have been most successful when based on a broad social consensus.
  • In interviews commissioned by SIGAR, many male and female interviewees cited social and cultural norms and insecurity as the biggest barriers to Afghan women’s advancement, particularly in rural areas.
  • Afghanistan’s gender norms have been buffeted by many drivers of change since 2001: economic growth, exposure to new ideas and practices through a boom in media and mobile phone use, the presence of tens of thousands of foreigners, and targeted efforts to push for change through legal reforms, donor-supported programs, and social and political activism.
  • U.S. agencies must assess how they can best support women and girls, advance gender equality, and uphold international norms and human rights without provoking backlash that might endanger women and girls or stall progress.

The difference in challenges between women in urban areas and women in rural areas are as long as the gap between the earth and sky. In urban areas, women . . . know about their rights. However, in rural areas, women work very hard, they carry water on their heads, they harvest the wheat, they take care of livestock and do all the physical tasks. They have less value in their homes, they have no rights in decision-making.

Male member of the provincial council, Bamyan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 17, 2020

Islam doesn’t prevent women from studying and working, but sometimes the poor culture and tradition are some of the biggest challenges in Afghanistan. . . . People still prefer the patriarchy.

Male member of a civil society organization, Bamyan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 12, 2020

In rural areas, when women wear good clothes and go to school, people laugh at them and term them as foreigners. But . . . in urban areas, people value education and that’s why they value and respect educated women.

Female member of the provincial council, Khost Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 10, 2020

The War’s Impact on Women

U.S. Marines photo
U.S. Marines photo

Improvements in the lives of Afghan women and girls have occurred alongside, and in many cases in spite of, the misery wrought by the last two decades of war. Violence continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing Afghan women, both directly and indirectly. In a country with one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world, insecurity has made routine medical care difficult or impossible to get. The same insecurity has made it impossible for large numbers of Afghan children—especially girls—to attend school. High civilian casualties drive a strong desire among ordinary Afghans—especially women—for an end to the conflict.

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Key Findings

  • While civilian casualties have declined modestly since hitting a peak in 2016, and declined more in the first half of 2020, overall they are still nearly double what they were in 2009. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), in 2019, 12 percent of civilian casualties were women, and children represented 30 percent.
  • Violence associated with the war continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing Afghan women. Direct impacts, such as loss of life, injury, disability, and mental trauma, spawn a range of indirect impacts: the loss of a male breadwinner, increasingly desperate poverty, the social stigma and discrimination that accompany widowhood and permanent disability, and reduced mobility and access to basic services.
  • In interviews commissioned by SIGAR, Afghans cited insecurity and harassment as key barriers to women’s mobility and work. Some saw the Taliban and clashes with Afghan security forces as sources of insecurity—consistent with recent survey data by The Asia Foundation. Some interviewees also expressed resentment toward U.S. military forces and saw them as partly responsible for the violence.

Security is the biggest challenge women face in our community because due to insecurity women cannot move around, or work outside of their homes.

Female resident, Jawjan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 10, 2020

Both sides are dumb; they don’t know with their war what problems they create for people, and poor people are involved for nothing.

Female resident, Badakhshan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 10, 2020

U.S. Strategy and Policy

DVIDS photo
DVIDS photo

Since 2001, the Congress and three administrations have brought significant political attention to bear on Afghan women’s status and rights—including the Bush administration’s rhetoric suggesting that the Taliban’s oppression of women was one justification for U.S. military action against the Taliban. This attention, a reflection of both genuine concern and U.S. political agendas, has influenced U.S. assistance to support Afghan women and girls. Moreover, the success or failure of efforts to advance and protect women’s rights has become an important measure by which policymakers judge the reconstruction effort. This chapter assesses how the United States planned to advance the status and rights of Afghan women and girls, and how this strategy evolved over time.

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Key Findings

  • Although advancing women’s status and rights was not a reason for the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, improving the lives of Afghan women and girls was one important goal of the U.S. reconstruction effort.
  • The U.S. government has framed its commitment to Afghan women and girls as both a means of achieving broader U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan, and as a goal worthy in its own right.
  • U.S. strategies for support to Afghan women and girls set out consistent and expansive goals, but earlier strategies made little to no mention of the formidable cultural, social, political, and security barriers to those goals—indicating that agencies may not have adequately accounted for constraints and challenges.
  • The indicators for the current (2019) U.S. gender strategy for Afghanistan may be overly quantitative and of little help to policymakers trying to determine the actual outcomes of U.S. assistance.
  • The high-level political focus on gender issues in Afghanistan translated into congressional and executive branch agency support for significant funding for U.S. efforts targeting women and girls. At the same time, that political focus may also have reduced the scrutiny accorded to the design of some gender programs.

By their [the U.S.] presence, we dare to get out of the house and work. If they are not here, we don’t know what will happen to women.

Female member of the Afghan Parliament, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

I believe if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will be better for people as a whole, as the only reason for war is the presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. They are the reason people keep fighting and the reason men are always suspicious and worried about women. I also believe only we can solve our problems ourselves; we can’t ask the U.S. to solve the issues of Afghans.

Female participant of a USAID-funded program, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

There is no doubt that [the U.S. civilian presence has] carried out many development projects that had positive effects on Afghan men and women. But those effects and benefits were not enjoyed by everyone due to the corruption of our own Afghans on those projects.

Male member of the provincial council, Uruzgan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

Overview of U.S. Programming and Mainstreaming Efforts

State photo
State photo

This chapter offers an overview of the Department of State (State), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Defense (DOD) programming intended to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls from 2002 to 2020, as well as an assessment of USAID’s and State’s gender mainstreaming approach. In pursuit of greater gender equality in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Afghan governments adopted an approach known as gender mainstreaming, in which the design and implementation of development programs are required to be sensitive to gender norms and disparities. In theory, mainstreaming encourages donors to evaluate the potential effects of any development policy or program to make sure that those efforts do not inadvertently exacerbate existing inequalities. In practice, short rotations of staff and limited expertise lessened the impact that gender mainstreaming might have had.

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Key Findings

  • State and USAID have not consistently tracked or quantified the amount of money disbursed for projects which directly or indirectly support Afghan women, girls, or gender equality goals. Therefore, the full extent of U.S. programming to support Afghan women and girls is not quantifiable.
  • From 2002 to 2020, State, USAID, and DOD disbursed at least $787.4 million for programs that primarily supported Afghan women and girls in the areas of health, education, political participation, access to justice, and economic participation. Yet that figure significantly understates the total U.S. effort in these areas, because hundreds of other U.S. programs included an unquantifiable gender component.
  • While gender mainstreaming policies for Afghanistan have been widely adopted on paper, their implementation has been undercut by conceptual misunderstanding, unclear or unfeasible implementation guidelines, short rotations of staff, and limited expertise.
  • Gender analysis, which USAID considered an essential component of the mainstreaming strategy, was often delayed or ineffective.
  • USAID was unable to field the resources and expertise needed to effectively integrate gender-related objectives across programming in Afghanistan.

Health Care

World Bank photo
World Bank photo

Senior U.S. government leaders, practitioners, and researchers alike frequently cite improvements in women’s access to health care as one of the most significant accomplishments of post-2001 efforts to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls. The life expectancy of Afghan women has risen from 58 in 2002 to 66 in 2018. Maternal health in particular has been a primary focus of the United States and international donors. This chapter provides an overview of post-2001 gains in women’s health, as well as a summary of barriers that continue to impede progress. The chapter then more closely examines four programs representative of U.S. efforts to improve maternal health.

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Key Findings

  • There are evident gains in a number of indicators related to maternal health:

    • Prenatal care coverage rose from 16 percent of pregnant women in 2002 to 61 percent in 2015.
    • Postnatal care coverage increased from an average of 28 percent between 2005 and 2010 to 40 percent in 2015.
    • The number of trained midwives rose from 467 in 2002 to roughly 4,000 in 2018.
    • The number of health facilities staffed with at least one female health worker rose from 25 percent in 2002 to 92 percent in 2017.
  • Despite the uncertainty around some maternal mortality ratio data and figures that remain troublingly high, it is possible that the maternal mortality ratio in Afghanistan has declined between 19 and 50 percent since 2002.
  • Aside from its intrinsic medical value, midwifery training gave women a degree of economic independence and the opportunity to serve as role models in their communities.
  • Fielding female health professionals to rural areas has proven challenging. Further, there remains a vast disparity between urban and rural reproductive health indicators, indicating that progress has been uneven and that many women still lack access to essential services.
  • USAID health programs examined by SIGAR engaged men to facilitate women’s use of maternal health care; made creative use of media and mobile technology to expand messaging, training, and referral services into rural areas; and worked to improve access to maternal health in both the private and public sector.
  • In interviews with Afghans commissioned by SIGAR, women and men indicated that even where access to health care is available, barriers such as insecurity, too few female health care workers, and the expense of care discourage them from seeking it—suggesting that these barriers to access are challenges that U.S. agencies must continue to address.

They want their girls to visit a female doctor instead of male doctors, but when they fall sick they do not have any female doctor to treat them.

Female resident, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

If [donors] cannot do anything else, at least they can help with maternity care for women.

Female resident, Kabul Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 25, 2020

We can say that they [health centers] exist, but there are no services, and still there are maternal deaths of mothers and babies.

Male resident, Farah Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 12, 2020


DOD photo
DOD photo

The Afghan government and its international partners have made significant progress in getting more children, especially more girls, into school. Over the last two decades, there have been increases in the number of schools, the number of girls in attendance, the number of female teachers, and literacy rates for female youth. Yet serious obstacles remain, and they are often worse in rural areas. These include traditional gender norms which do not encourage girls’ education past primary school, poor school infrastructure, a lack of female teachers, and insecurity—all of which keep large numbers of girls from attending school. Community-based education, an alternative learning program based on the idea of bringing teachers to students instead of bringing students to a school building, is a promising alternative that has opened up opportunities for girls’ education.

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Key Findings

  • There were few, if any, girls in school or female teachers under the Taliban regime. Today, as many as 3.5 million girls (out of about 9 million students) are enrolled in school, though this number is likely a high estimate. As of 2018, approximately 70,000 women were in teaching jobs, representing roughly one-third of the nation’s teachers.
  • Literacy rates among girls nearly doubled, from 20 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2017. Among adult women, literacy rates in the same period rose by just one-tenth, from 18 to roughly 20 percent.
  • These improvements in women’s and girls’ access to education have been achieved in part due to significant U.S. investments. Between 2002 and 2020, USAID and State disbursed an estimated $1 billion on education programs in Afghanistan. Of these efforts, approximately $205 million in programming targeted women and girls’ education as a primary objective.
  • Community-based education has proven effective as a reliable, culturally accepted model for delivering primary education in areas where the formal education system does not operate, and especially in closing the enrollment and achievement gap between girls and boys.
  • An important caveat is that education gains for women and girls have been concentrated in urban areas and largely at the primary school level, and the quality of education remains problematic.
  • Some of the gains made for girls in access to education may not be sustainable, since a large portion of the education sector in Afghanistan is dependent on international donor funding for maintaining and expanding those gains.
  • The formal education system cannot meet the high demand for girls’ education across the country, due to its limited financial and human resources capacity.
  • Factors that contribute to keeping many girls out of school include insecurity, lack of female teachers, not enough schools with boundary walls and separate girls’ bathrooms, and lack of safe drinking water. In addition, family pressure and traditional cultural beliefs, especially in rural areas, that women’s primary roles are as at-home caregivers, often discourage girls from attending school past puberty.

If . . . more families allow their girls to go to school, then more women will have greater awareness of their rights and more motivation to do things that are not just in the household, like being a wife and mother.

Female participant of USAID-funded program, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

There are some bright-minded men in Afghanistan who want to see women educated, but on the other hand a majority of men are influenced by the propaganda of others.

Female participant of USAID-funded program, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

If the Taliban comes into power, I see no difference between urban and rural women; we will both have the same challenges.

Female member of the provincial council, Kunduz Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 19, 2020

Political Participation

USAID/Afghanistan photo
USAID/Afghanistan photo

Women’s participation in the parliament and civil society has significantly increased since 2001. With support from the international donors, Afghan women have pushed for and won seats in the parliament. They have also consistently voted in significant numbers in national elections and have aggressively advocated for women’s protection individually or as part of civil society organizations and coalitions. However, women politicians and civil society leaders continue to have limited influence on policy and face disproportionate intimidation and violence on a daily basis.

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Key Findings

  • Women’s participation in the Afghan Parliament and provincial and district councils has significantly increased since 2001, with 27 percent of parliamentary seats and 25 percent of provincial and district council seats reserved for women. Women comprise almost 50 percent of elected community development council members.
  • U.S. and other international support has been crucial in supporting Afghan women leaders who have pushed for greater political participation.
  • However, women politicians, voters, and advocates continue to face violence and intimidation, pervasive sexual harassment, and lack of mobility—one reason that the greater political participation by women has not always translated into meaningful representation for women.
  • Women’s participation in civil society organizations also increased, both as beneficiaries and as employees. However, these organizations mainly operated in urban areas and remained heavily dependent on foreign funding and short-term projects. Reduced external funding caused hundreds to close their doors, with many more on the verge of closing.
  • The increase in women’s participation in civil society organizations was in part due to U.S. programs that were designed to support Afghan civil society broadly, with a special focus on organizations led by or supporting women.
  • Women’s presence in the media increased significantly since 2001. A rapid growth and diversification of media created roles for women as both consumers and producers of media content.
  • Women’s increased presence in and access to media appear to have helped shift public attitudes to more positively view women’s rights. The United States has directed significant funding and effort to developing the Afghan media sector and supporting women’s participation in it.
  • A substantial minority of Afghan women have insisted on their right to vote. However, extensive fraud in Afghan elections has called into question the reliability of vote totals, particularly those cast by women. The percentage of votes from a given jurisdiction cast by women has been used as a proxy for the rate of fraud.
  • While USAID has reported important successes from its program Promote, the quality and sustainability of the program’s outputs and outcomes remain undetermined because no final independent evaluation has been conducted of the program or of any of its components.

In democratic systems, the contribution of women is necessary and important, especially on behalf of those areas where there are many vulnerable women. The female members of parliament can make vulnerable women bold enough to make an effort towards their development and improvement of their lives.

Male member of the Afghan Parliament, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 3, 2020

When we have meetings and both men and women raise their hands and show their cards, the respect that is given to men is not given to women. The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.

Female member of the Afghan Parliament, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

Access to Justice

AFP photo
AFP photo

Though the Afghan government has passed important laws designed to increase women’s access to justice and combat gender-based violence, a complex web of political, institutional, cultural, and legal barriers continues to stymie progress. Yet increases in women’s employment throughout the justice sector since 2001 shows that women are making inroads into a system historically dominated by men. These gains, limited as they are, reflect what is possible and serve as reminders of the difficult work that remains.

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Key Findings

  • On paper, Afghanistan’s legal framework offers women and girls many protections. In reality, enforcement of these laws has been minimal.
  • Neither the formal or informal justice system offers women adequate protection of their rights. Women seeking redress via the formal system often encounter corruption, or find themselves facing unjust punishment. Many women settle disputes or violations of their rights via informal mechanisms like local mediation, but these are unregulated, raise human rights concerns, and undercut the formal justice system.
  • Women’s participation in the judicial sector as judges and police officers has risen only incrementally since 2001—and mainly in urban areas—but even this small increase is significant. Increasing the number of women working as police, attorneys, and judges can encourage more women to seek redress through the justice system.
  • The Afghan Ministry of Interior’s Family Response Units, which help women register complaints with the police, receive more complaints than regular police units and are more likely to act on them. However, female Family Response Unit officers need more training in how to deal with situations involving violence against women.
  • Both State and USAID implemented several rule of law programs with objectives related to increasing women’s access to justice. However, a review of four of these programs revealed that insufficient monitoring and evaluation of program activities and unsubstantiated claims of success make it impossible to assess how much these programs actually improved women’s access to justice.
  • In interviews with Afghans commissioned by SIGAR, several women emphasized that domestic violence is a persistent feature of everyday life for women, and that familiarity with laws designed to protect them appeared to be limited.

Men are causing such violence because they do not have awareness, so there has to be awareness programs for such men, especially in rural areas to become aware of women’s rights.

Female resident, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 2020

Men do not let women . . . defend their rights. Women are not allowed to have opinions in the household and when they do, they have trouble with their husbands and sometimes their other family members.

Female resident, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 2020

Economic Participation

UNAMA photo
UNAMA photo

Women have made modest gains in economic participation, especially in owning and running microbusinesses and obtaining secure jobs in urban areas. But gender disparity has remained one of the most persistent features of the Afghan labor force. National household surveys and in-depth analyses of women’s economic participation have all underscored the disadvantages Afghan women face in the labor force.

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Key Findings

  • Women have made modest gains in economic participation, especially in obtaining secure jobs in urban areas and in owning and running small businesses. Women’s share of secure jobs in urban areas increased from 27 percent to 42 percent between 2007 and 2017. However, women overall continue to be less secure in their jobs than men, work fewer hours, and earn less income.
  • The number of women-operated businesses also grew after 2001, but women are overall still a small minority—about 5 percent—of business owners. Most of these businesses were in urban areas; most were owned by women with high levels of education and support from their families.
  • The percentage of women in the civil service—an important source of employment for women—increased from 18 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2019. However, these civil service jobs were concentrated in urban areas and in only a few ministries. Although still small, the percentage of women in decision-making positions increased from 10 percent to 15 percent between 2013 and 2018.
  • Several U.S. programs aimed to increase women’s participation in the workforce. Activities included providing skills training, internship programs, and grants to small women-owned businesses. Some program beneficiaries were able to find jobs and start new businesses, but is unclear how sustainable these gains are. Moreover, programs were unable to measure how much of a role the training and grants played in actually creating new jobs or women-owned businesses, and implementers appeared to measure success by the number of trainings instead of their quality.

If a woman wants to work, first she will face challenges and disagreement at home. When she convinces her family members after arguing with them for several days, then she will have to face opposition from the community’s members, religious leaders, and local elders. There are always going to be people in the community who don’t think working or being outside of the house is a good thing for women. This is a man’s world, and we have to fight to be in it.

Female participant of a USAID-funded program, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 2020

When men go to work, no one harasses them or says bad words to them. On the other hand . . . when a girl goes to school, people call her bad names. Men can get access to everywhere at any time but women cannot do whatever they want, like going to the doctor.

Male resident, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

Women’s Participation in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces

DVIDS photo
DVIDS photo

The meaningful inclusion of women in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is a practical necessity in Afghanistan. Because Afghan culture and tradition preclude the free interaction of men and women, male soldiers and police are unable to effectively interact with nearly half of the population—including female suspects, women at airports or national borders, and female victims of domestic violence. A lack of female police officers and soldiers hamstrings key security objectives, including combating the high rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence throughout the country. Yet women serving in the security forces often face a daunting array of problems: social stigma, discrimination from male colleagues, resistance from the communities where they work, and harassment and abuse from their male colleagues.

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Key Findings

  • Initial Afghan goals for the recruitment and retention of women in the ANDSF, which U.S. efforts sought to help the Afghan government achieve, were highly unrealistic. These targets have been adjusted over the years to provide more realistic goals, based on recruitment trends and capacity.
  • Since 2014, the Congress has appropriated $110 million in funds toward increasing women’s inclusion in the ANDSF. The result has been only a minimal increase in women in the Afghan National Army and a modest increase in women police officers.
  • Afghan women must overcome a range of significant barriers to serve in the security forces, including cultural resistance, threats to their personal safety, and pervasive harassment and discrimination.
  • DOD efforts to support women’s meaningful inclusion in the security forces have recently shifted to improving the working conditions and protections for women serving in the ANDSF, rather than mainly seeking to increase women’s recruitment numbers.

If you want to help and increase women’s participation in the military or police . . . you have to offer incentives, build trust, and assure their families of their safety and security first.

Mina Sherzoy, former director of Promote’s Women in Government program

Future Threats and Opportunities

AFP photo
AFP photo

Afghan women and girls have made important gains in some sectors since 2001 and limited progress in others. Today, facing the withdrawal of international forces and the prospect of a peace agreement that would bring the Taliban closer to power, Afghan women have reason to question whether these hard-won achievements will be protected. This chapter discusses current political, security, and economic challenges that threaten to undermine or undo women’s gains of the past 19 years—including peace negotiations, the drawdown of U.S. troops, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also explores women’s participation in peace negotiations, opportunities for preserving and building on post-2001 gains, as well as Taliban practices toward women today, and what these indicate about how the Taliban might govern if they are integrated into the Afghan government.

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Key Findings

  • Foreign troop reductions, reduced donor funding, ongoing Afghan peace negotiations, the possibility of a future Afghan government that includes the Taliban, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the worst-case scenario of state collapse raise questions about whether the fragile gains made by women and girls since 2001 will be preserved and expanded.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to school closures, restrictions on movement, challenges obtaining medical care, and increased economic hardships and domestic violence, exacerbating already significant challenges for women and girls.
  • It is unclear how much Taliban practices have changed since their 1996–2001 rule. While information on Taliban practices in areas they influence or control is limited, there is evidence that practices vary by location. Some Afghans reportedly view Taliban courts as more effective and less corrupt than Afghan government courts, but residents in Taliban-influenced areas may have no alternative, or may be coerced to use the Taliban system. More worryingly, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented instances in which the Taliban exact punishments on the grounds of what they deemed to be “immoral” acts, similar to the days of their rule.
  • The kind of life Afghan women will face under any government in which the Taliban exert an influence will be a product of the Taliban’s ability—or inability—to negotiate their differences with the Afghan government and local communities, and the varying beliefs and practices within their own ranks.
  • Afghan women have participated in informal dialogues and formal peace negotiations in relatively small numbers, and reportedly are engaging on a wide range of issues. It is too early to tell what role they are playing in shaping the discussion and outcome.
  • The effort to promote women’s rights may be hampered by a growing narrative in Afghanistan that the country can either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights.
  • Though U.S. leverage in Afghanistan is now lower than at previous junctures, given far fewer U.S. troops in country, lower assistance levels, and perceptions that the U.S. government is eager to reduce its engagement in Afghanistan, U.S. diplomatic tools and aid remain potent levers with which policymakers and officials can continue to push for the protection of women’s and girls’ rights.

We are worried because whatever happens, it is behind closed doors . . . [we] don’t know if they can defend women’s rights or not.

Female member of the Afghan government, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

I hope that [the Taliban has] changed because they are living luxurious lives in Qatar and have enrolled their own women in schools there as well. So they will want the same for Afghan women.

Male member of the community development council, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 12, 2020

Every group has good and bad among them, and the Taliban is the same. We are afraid of both sides.

Female member of provincial council, Balkh Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 18, 2020

“[The Taliban] are collecting taxes for electricity, transportation, farmers, and customs. Day [by] day, they become more powerful.

Female member of the provincial council, Kunduz Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 19, 2020

For women, [the COVID-19 pandemic] brought many negative changes because all people sat at their homes due to closure of offices and businesses. This paved the way for domestic violence against women.

Female participant of a USAID-funded program, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 2020

Key Report Findings

USAID photo
    • Health: The maternal mortality ratio—the number of women who die due to birth- or pregnancy-related complications—has declined, with estimates of the decline ranging from 19 percent to 50 percent. This reflects a number of healthcare improvements. Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care by skilled health personnel rose from 16 percent to 61 percent; between 2002 and 2018, the number of trained midwives grew from an estimated 467 to 4,000, and the share of births attended by skilled health personnel went from 14 percent to nearly 60 percent. Between 2002 and 2017, the proportion of health facilities staffed with at least one female health worker rose from 25 percent to 92 percent. (A caveat is that the methodologies used to generate maternal mortality data have varied over time, and the reliability of some data has been questioned. Thus, while a decline in maternal deaths has likely occurred, a precise measurement of the reduction remains elusive.)
    • Education: As many as 3.5 million girls (roughly 40 percent of about 9 million students overall) are enrolled in school, though the number of girls actually attending school is almost certainly lower. Still, even a low estimate reflects a marked improvement over the few, if any, girls who attended public school under the Taliban. By 2018, there were approximately 70,000 women in teaching jobs, representing about one-third of the country’s teachers. There has been an expansion of community-based education, helping to close the enrollment gap between girls and boys. Literacy rates among girls have risen from 20 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2017. Overall support among the Afghan population for women’s and girls’ access to education has remained high since at least 2006.
    • Political participation: Unprecedented numbers of women now hold public office. Thanks to a constitutional amendment strongly supported by the United States and other donors, 27 percent of all parliament seats are reserved for women. By law, 25 percent of seats in provincial and district councils are now reserved for women. Nearly half of the 9,708 elected community development council members across the country are women. Women serve as ministers, deputy ministers, and ambassadors, and comprise about 28 percent of employees in civil society organizations. These figures represent the efforts of thousands of women, from the village to the national level. Women’s presence in the media also increased significantly since 2001.
    • Access to justice: Afghanistan has a legal framework for advancing access to justice for women and girls, including constitutional protections for equal rights for men and women, and the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, promulgated by presidential decree in 2009. The number of women serving in the police rose from 180 in 2005 to 3,650 in 2019. Specialized Family Response Units enable more women to file complaints with the police. From 2007 to 2018, the proportion of judges who are women grew from 5 percent to 13 percent (from 73 to 261 women).
    • Economic participation: There are more women-run businesses and more women employed in urban areas than there were 20 years ago. Women’s share of secure jobs in urban areas increased from 27 percent to 42 percent between 2007 and 2017—one of the few labor force indicators where women had greater gains than men. From 2007 to 2019, the share of women in civil service jobs, excluding the army and police, rose from 18 percent to 25 percent. Women held 15 percent of government decision-making positions in 2018, up from 10 percent in 2013.


USAID photo


UNAMA photo

Recommendations for the Congress

The Congress may wish to consider:

Recommendations for Executive Branch Agencies