There’s little good news coming out of Afghanistan right now. After decades of civil conflict, invasions, natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies, a catastrophic evacuation by United States (US) and international forces ended with the Taliban retaking control of the country in August 2021.
The resulting crackdown on women's and girls’ rights, including in employment, education, dress and appearance in public, went faster and further than most expected. More recently, a December 2022 decree banned women from working for NGOs – extended to include United Nations (UN) workers in April this year. This has created an untenable situation for local civil society, in particular the women’s rights organisations (WROs) that have led the charge for equality in their communities for so long.
Despite their huge importance, such groups are rarely consulted on the international response to crises. Peace Direct wanted to hear the perspectives of women in Afghanistan directly impacted by the NGO ban, as well as on the broader situation and how they have adapted. In April, the national partner we’ve been working with since 2021 led an interview survey with 30 expert witnesses – all of whom are women, community leaders and peacebuilders.
Living in 16 diverse provinces across the country, mostly aged 25–44, their input ought to have utmost relevance to foreign governments, international agencies and NGOs. The findings (some of which are shared below) highlight the intensity of the situation, but also the remarkable resilience of local civil society and the need for continued support.
A local view on the crisis
"Women have been deprived of their most important and fundamental rights. Women who take care of a family are currently unemployed and have no food to eat. Young girls who are the future of this country are not allowed to go to school" – Anonymous participant
All 30 participants told us that the NGO ban had, from their perspective, directly diminished access to humanitarian relief and health, food, water and other services in their provinces. This has worsened the already dire economic conditions and poverty levels since the Taliban takeover, especially for women and women-headed households who are severely limited in their access to employment.
The women also unanimously reported a significant increase in the level of domestic violence and women’s rights violations, which they linked to poverty and increased time at home due to bans on work and school attendance. Combined with public harassment by the authorities, women are experiencing a huge psychological impact, which is experienced through feelings of hopelessness, panic, depression and acute mental health crises.
Despite a massive increase in the need for humanitarian assistance, 22 out of the 30 participants claimed there was no system in their province for ensuring fair access and distribution – meaning that far too often it does not reach vulnerable women and girls. Participants reported high levels of mismanagement and misdirection of this support by the Taliban and other de facto authorities towards family members and friends.
This highlights the urgent need for international agencies to partner with local communities and women, to create and apply a transparent system for distributing emergency assistance. Otherwise, those women most in need of help in the current crisis will continue to be left unsupported.
Impact on women-led civil society
“Since the Taliban has banned women from working, our request to the international community, especially the UN, EU, and USA, is to stand by the women of Afghanistan at this critical time and provide financial support so that women can work on a small but effective level.” – Anonymous participant
Remarkably, despite the total ban on women working for NGOs, 16 out of 30 stated that women-led organisations and civil society are still active in their provinces.
Those organisations remaining operational have had to shift their approach significantly, with development and peacebuilding projects continuing in secret and women colleagues and volunteers working at home. Most activities are now organised online, with a small number taking place in residential homes. To obtain legal permission, local organisations are compelled to either hire male directors or face closure. All this adds further financial and operational pressures as civil society groups struggle to adapt.
Closures have also occurred due to the refusal of permits for other reasons, lack of funding, and broader Taliban restrictions like the decree that women cannot travel without a male relative. These closures have intensified the harmful impact of other decrees on Afghanistan’s women and girls, as the space for resistance and access to justice has rapidly shrunk. This demonstrates how, as we see worldwide, a well-resourced civil society is an absolute necessity for defending against human rights violations and restrictions.
It’s clear that despite these growing challenges, the international community, including donors, NGOs and other agencies, must continue to provide flexible financial and other support, such as skill sharing and in-kind assistance, directly to local civil society in Afghanistan. This is especially true for women-led organisations, to help them to adapt to the new environment and continue their advocacy for women’s livelihoods, inclusion and rights. The ever-harsher social environment and mental health crisis demand wider social assistance, including job opportunities and psycho-social help.
At Peace Direct, we’ve proved it is possible to channel support into Afghanistan – with our national partner, we launched the Afghan Solidarity Fund in 2022 to channel direct, flexible funding and support to local civil society and WROs. We know first-hand that powerful networks of women peacebuilders already exist and are providing the vital assistance their communities need – the international community must do better to reach them.
Artwork created for Peace Direct's Afghan Solidarity Fund by Ghazal Qadri, an illustrator from Afghanistan.
Views on the international community
“The response of the international community was not decisive […] they symbolically declared their support for Afghan women but did not use their power against the Taliban, and so far, they have not put any pressure on the Taliban to improve the situation” – Anonymous participant
Unsurprisingly, participants reported widespread dissatisfaction with the Taliban regime from women, girls, men and boys across the country – though they noted the minority of men who benefit from the situation.
There is also widespread disappointment with the response of the international community – especially the UN, key governments such as the US and United Kingdom, and INGOs – whose reaction to the harmful decrees and other public protests is seen as weak and rhetorical. This reflected a consensus view that international actors had the power to effect positive change but have chosen not to. Some noted the impact the international community did have – in its botched 2021 evacuation and apparent failure to take opportunities to put pressure on the regime.
Participants called on all international partners to denounce the Taliban’s decrees that infringe on the rights of women and girls – particularly access to education, work and public spaces. This should be combined with sustained, coordinated pressure on the de facto authorities to reverse them. Exactly what this looks like in policy terms is open to discussion – but it must include the voices of women and girls who are directly affected. Survey participants also urgently cautioned against the situation becoming normalised, for example through official UN recognition of Taliban authorities.
This locally-led survey unveiled a rich perspective that receives far too little attention at the global level. The findings emphasise a key point: any international response, whether humanitarian, development or diplomatic, requires not just the input but the leadership of local civil society and women. Without it, there can be no lasting peace or security.
With this in mind, we end with the vision of one of the local experts:
"The only way forward for Afghanistan is through a more pluralistic polity, where all Afghans, especially women and minorities, see themselves represented and have a real voice in decision-making” – Anonymous participant
* The name of this organisation is kept anonymous for the purpose of this article