Skip to content

Women’s activism in Afghanistan needs all the support it can get

Story Gender equity
Afghanistan -

Across Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, women continue to defend their basic rights, whilst dealing with severe gender-based restrictions at the same time. “Our rights are curtailed. But there still is a vital space for women and we must support Afghan women’s organizations to survive these difficult times”, says Zuhra Zaheer, Cordaid’s Gender and GBV coordinator in Kabul.  A quick survey among grassroots Afghan women’s leaders shows common challenges, striking differences, and a shared will to pursue their mission.

The restrictions imposed on women by the new Afghan government are severe, to say the least. Progress Afghan women made in the past 20 years is being undone. From reproductive rights to school enrolment, from participation in governance to labour market access. Freedoms women had won, are taken from them.

Women’s achievements under threat

Take girls’ school attendance, which had increased spectacularly in the past two decades, both in primary and secondary schools and in universities. Today, until further notice, the Taliban have decreed that girls are not allowed to go to school beyond 6th grade (age 10 and older). Primary school and university are still accessible but have become fully gender-segregated. For public universities, there are gender-specific days. And a lot of girls no longer go to class because of the lack of female teachers.

“Right at the time when our basic rights to choose, to speak, to work, and to move freely are brutally curtailed, we have fewer recourses to justice than ever.”

Women’s labour market participation, which had increased to 22% by 2019, is deteriorating as it has become harder for women to take part in public life. Certain sectors, such as health care and education, are still open to women. But many of them, including civil servants, are not allowed to go back to their workspace. Some are still paid (part of) their salary, while others have lost their jobs.  And for those who are still allowed to go to work, office life has radically changed. “In many offices, including offices of NGOs, women and men have to work in separate spaces”, explains Zuhra Zaheer, Cordaid’s Gender and GBV coordinator in Kabul.

There are other restrictions. “Women aren’t allowed to travel beyond 48 miles without a mahram [male escort]. There is strong pressure on women to cover their entire bodies and to cover their faces while interacting with a male. Thus, we can’t move or travel freely and we can’t decide what to wear”, she adds.

“But we will not give in”

New gender policies not only affect individual lives but also shape institutions and society. “Right now, there are no legal entities women can turn to when their rights are violated. Key institutions for the protection and empowerment of women, like the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and many civil society organisations, have been abolished recently”, Zaheer explains. Even parliament, the paramount representational platform for women, has been dissolved.

“In fact, right at the time when our basic rights to choose, to speak, to work, and to move freely are brutally curtailed, we have fewer recourses to justice and fewer means to take part in public and civil life than ever. But we will not give in”, Zaheer concludes.

mural in Kabul with eight women representing different professions such as nurse, soldier, lawyer
An ArtLords mural depicting women in Kabul. The messages say: ‘We are our own representatives’, and ‘Women make up half of Afghanistan’s population.’ Image: Artlords

Indeed, Afghan women have not given up, despite the challenges they are facing. By ‘we’, Zaheer means not only young, educated Afghan women in Kabul, like herself, but the wider network and community of women’s activists across the country. This includes the grassroots Provincial Women’s Networks that Cordaid and the Dutch Government have been supporting for the past seven years.

No peace without women

In all its interventions over the past years, whether it was promoting healthcare or private sector development, whether it was delivering emergency aid or furthering the women, peace and security agenda, and the participation of women in governance and decision-making, Cordaid sought and seeks to promote gender equity. The reason is as simple as it is urgent: there can be no stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan as long as half of its population have their rights denied and cannot meaningfully participate.

The Provincial Women’s Networks (PWN) have been a key Afghan partner in our gender equity work. We have supported them since 2015, covering operational costs, providing capacity building, and supporting networking and advocacy initiatives. The last collaboration, under the umbrella of the Monitoring Women, Peace and Security Phase 2 programme, MWSP2), which is financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been put on hold and is currently being reviewed.

In each province, women activists from the PWNs and other networks have been addressing and tackling violence against women, boosting women’s participation in all levels of decision-making, and lobbying on peace and security issues.

Afghan women’s rights defenders use every inch of freedom they have

In fact, Afghanistan’s gender equity progress over the past two decades is largely the result of this wide network of Afghan women’s activists. They peacefully battled for their rights during years of violent conflict prior to the Taliban take-over in August 2021. We have asked five of them in five different provinces how are they doing, whether they are still operational and how they cope with the current restrictions. For security reasons, we do not disclose their faces, names, or the names of their networks or organisations.

“There are things we can no longer do. But there are also things we can do, opportunities we can take. In fact, we grab every chance to support other women.”

“What we see here in Herat province, is that women who work for the government are not allowed to go to work and have to stay home until further notice. Many women, including teachers and academics, have left the country”, says one of the activists we talked to. “We are still here, trying to organize ourselves and we are not staying inside our homes. Supporting women in obtaining government positions, something we did a lot, is not possible any longer. But we do come to our office and gather with other women and women activists. Actually, it is a lack of funds that prevents us from launching outdoor activities. But at least coming together provides psychological support. And at least women know where to find us.”

Committed to staying

“Personally, I am committed to staying here and helping other women”, indicates the activist in Herat. “I told them that I will continue to fight for their rights. We don’t do anything against the law, so we stay committed to working for women’s rights. Even in the changed context. Many organizations have closed. We are the only hope for women. And we need all the support we can get, in the first place to get our work license and permit renewed”, she concludes.

“If we don’t reach out to them, who will?”

“There was and is a lot of fear and uncertainty”, says a Kabul-based activist. “Right after the August 2021 events [when the Taliban seized national control], we even hid our office’s few assets to avoid being directly targeted. Now, little by little, we are gradually getting back on track. Sure, there are things we can no longer do. But there are also things we can do, opportunities we can take. In fact, we grab every chance to support other women.  Education initiatives, humanitarian aid, helping women to set up a business, supporting them in accessing health facilities, providing psychosocial support… all of this is allowed. We do whatever we can do. We have to. Women who face violence in their own families can no longer ask for protection or justice from the government. They are afraid to report. If we don’t reach out to them, who will?”

In Kandahar province, limitations are more challenging. “We don’t even have the permission to operate as an organisation. Authorities have closed all civil society organisations in Kandahar. And as a woman, I am not even allowed to go to government departments. We, women activists, cannot even meet face to face. WhatsApp is all we have”, says a women’s rights activist in southwestern Kandahar province.

“Despite the limitations, we do whatever we can”

She has one window of opportunity though. Not with her organisation, but individually, as an influential and highly respected woman in her society. “I am allowed to support women in cases of violence within the family. Abused women have nowhere else to go, currently, as there are no legal entities to support them. So, despite the imposed limitations, we are doing whatever we can for them and help solve these family cases.”

In Paktya, southern Afghanistan, things have changed too. “Women’s rights advocacy was an important part of what we did. Now, it’s almost impossible to even go to government offices. We can’t organize public meetings any longer. So, we are using WhatsApp to stay connected. Local authorities sometimes do show a willingness to meet us and discuss issues, but without any media exposure. They themselves are under a lot of pressure from higher officials”, says a Paktya-based activist. “Meanwhile, a lot of the women have lost their jobs and their income. They now try to make ends meet by using the many skills they have”, she adds.

“We help girls above sixth grade who cannot go to school any longer to find alternative educational institutes so that they can continue their studies.”

Like her colleague from Kandahar, she points out that, as the Human Rights Commission and many civil society organisations have all gone, her network is the only source of support women have in Paktya.

“I resisted and told them that I would go out and fight for other women”

And just like the others, she goes to great lengths to stay operational. “When the new government came, they told us we had to stop. But I resisted and told them that I will go out and fight for other women. That I will protect what Afghan women have achieved. Today, we can organize meetings in person. But because of lack of funds, we only meet online. We minimize our exposure, but still, we are going out into the communities. We help girls above sixth grade who cannot go to school any longer to find alternative educational institutes so that they can continue their studies. And we support young women to take part in vocational training, improving their prospects for the future”, she explains.

In Daikundi, Central Afghanistan, the situation seems less bleak. “We feel freer than women in other provinces. Socially, we do not feel a lot of restrictions”, claims a  women’s rights activist in that province.

Lack of funding, lack of support

Apart from the imposed restrictions and the impossibility for many women’s organisations and networks to renew their licenses, the lack of financial support and of international solidarity is PWN’s biggest concern. Most, if not all of that support came from the international community.

Support for PWNs mostly came from the Dutch government, via Cordaid and the MWSP2 programme. That programme is now on the verge of ending before its initially projected end date in 2024.

“Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is creating the conditions that war will not return and that justice prevails.”

“We want to use every opportunity, small or big, to keep alive our women empowering activities. And to support Afghan women’s based organisations to survive in these difficult times”, says Cordaid Afghanistan Director Marco Savio. “They are there, in all parts of Afghanistan, strong, professional, and committed. If that stops, it would be a blow. For women in the first place. But also for civil society as a whole. Without them, you’d need to start from scratch once there will be a possibility to scale up activities again in the future. It is easy to close down, but very hard to restart”, he adds.

Or in the words of the women’s activist from Paktya: “Afghan women have achieved a lot in the past decades. We fought for that. We now need the support of the international community and donors to safeguard those achievements. And to continue empowering women, instead of steeply going downhill.”

Now is the time to speak out and act

A colleague in Kabul echoes her words. “Countries and institutions around the globe have to speak out, act, and show support. Now is the time”

Less than two years ago, when peace talks with the Taliban had started, prominent Afghan activist Zarqa Yaftali said, in her interview with Cordaid:  “Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is creating the conditions that war will not return and that justice prevails. An important part of justice is that the basic rights and freedoms of women and young people are not only enshrined in our constitution but also enshrined in our society.”

By showing international solidarity with Afghan women, and by supporting them, we can help that vision of peace stay alive in Afghanistan.

This article, a co-production from Ezatullah Omerzai in Kabul and Frank van Lierde in The Hague, was written mid May 2022. Shortly after, Zuhra Zaheer left Cordaid for reasons that are not directly related to the political situation in Afghanistan. Cordaid Afghanistan is in the process of filling the vacant position of Gender and GBV coordinator.