Over the past 11 months, we have seen an escalation of restrictive policies and behaviours towards women.
- Afghanistan remains the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school.
- Women are restricted from working outside the home, except for a few sectors and particular roles.
- There are no women in cabinet and there is no Ministry of Women’s Affairs, effectively removing women’s right to political participation.
- Women are required to have a male chaperone when they are travelling more than 78 kilometres.
- They’re also required to cover their faces in public.
Combined, these rules limit women’s ability to earn a living, access health care and education, escape situations of violence, and exercise their rights—and they further limit Afghanistan’s ability to chart a way forward through crisis.
But none of this is news anymore. What I’m here to brief you on is what these directives and restrictions practically mean for women and girls living in Afghanistan today—women I’ve met as I’ve travelled to provinces and districts across the country. Women who could have briefed you directly a couple of months ago and now can’t leave their homes, go to their jobs, or show their faces.
Women spoke of how the mahram requirement is impacting every aspect of their lives, from their freedom to go to buy bread and meet the basic needs of their family, to their ability to influence decision-making in the home. Women linked the mandatory face covering with their increasing invisibility. Some women told me they still go to the market without a mahram, but they live in fear that one day they will be stopped and beaten for the act of buying groceries without a man.
Some women also told me that Afghanistan feels safer now—they’re less afraid of indiscriminate attacks and relieved the conflict has subsided. But safety comes at the expense of agency—and this price is too high for most women.
Stories of loss reverberate throughout Afghanistan. But there is also hope even in the face of such loss. In every province I visited, women told me they will not give up. They will not accept this systematic exclusion from public life, these restrictions on their right to learn, to work, and to have a voice.
Women are forming new civil society groups to address community needs, running businesses, and still going to work to provide health and protection services.
For many women across the world, walking outside the front door of your home is an ordinary part of life. For many Afghan women, it is extraordinary. It is an act of defiance.
People often ask me how we can support Afghan women and girls. What can we do?
The answer may sound simple, but it’s transformative—proven to be true by research time and time again. Invest in women—invest in services for women, jobs for women and women-led businesses, invest in women leaders and women’s organizations.
For the international community this means:
- Targeted, substantial, and systematic funding to programmes that address women’s rights and empowerment.
- Prioritize hearing from Afghan women directly on their needs and strengthening advocacy for the full spectrum of their rights, including women’s right to work and engage in public and political life.
- Facilitate women’s meaningful participation in all stakeholder engagement on Afghanistan—this includes in any delegations meeting with Taliban officials. Nothing hurts our mission more when we ask the Taliban, where are your women? And they say to us, where are yours?
UN Women is on the ground in Afghanistan, working every day to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls. We are scaling up provision of services for women, by women to meet overwhelming needs. Health, education, and protection services are not only essential but, in this environment, they are lifesaving.
We are supporting women-led businesses and employment opportunities for women across all sectors. The full return of women to work is key to transforming Afghanistan’s economy and lifting the country out of poverty.
We are investing in women-led civil society organizations, to support the rebuilding of the women’s movement. The women’s movement is the key engine driving progress and accountability on women’s rights and gender equality—not just in Afghanistan, but everywhere in world.
Every day, we are advocating for restoring, protecting, and promoting the full spectrum of women’s and girls’ rights and creating spaces for Afghan women themselves to advocate for their right to live free and equal lives.
Many Afghan women and girls feel that they are now invisible, and that the world has forgotten them—compounding their invisibility.
Afghanistan is not the only country in the world where women’s rights are being rolled back. But what is happening in Afghanistan is an alarm bell for all of us because it shows how decades of progress on gender equality and women’s rights can be literally wiped out in months.
It is a clarion call to everyone that the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan is a global fight, and a battle for women’s rights everywhere.
What we all do—or fail to do—for women and girls in Afghanistan is the ultimate test of who we are as a global community, and what we stand for.