An Afghan woman walks home in Parwan province, 60 kilometers north of Kabul, Afghanistan, June 9, 2003. During the Taliban regime people of this area were migrated to the safer places because of heavy fighting. (AP Photo/Amir Shah)

On October 7, 2001, the United States (US) invaded Afghanistan, starting a decades-long “war on terror.” To legitimize the invasion, the Bush administration began to refer to the war in Afghanistan as a part of a larger campaign to free women. In a radio address to the country on November 13, 2001, Laura Bush declared that the war in Afghanistan would free the women of Afghanistan. Specifically, she said, “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” The State Department made it a point thereafter to emphasize the terrible conditions of women and children under the Taliban regime. The regime’s treatment of women, including denying women and girls access to education, work, healthcare, and freedom of movement, became intertwined with the war on terror in general and the war in Afghanistan in particular. As such, women’s rights and participation became intimately tied to war and militarism.

Despite this linking of Afghan women’s rights to the necessity of war, the intervention did lead to large-scale improvements for some women in Afghanistan. Since 2001, US intervention and aid to Afghanistan led to broad gains in economic development, public health, and infrastructure. In 2018, the World Bank reported a 75 percent increase in real income per capita since 2001. Similar improvements were cited in the education sector: girls’ primary school enrollment in Afghanistan increased from roughly 7 percent in 2003 to 33 percent in 2017. Over the duration of the US occupation, World Bank data also suggests that the number of women in the workforce increased to 22 percent in 2019 from 15 percent in 2001. These numbers show clear gains in women’s rights and participation in Afghanistan.

The US invasion in 2001 was not the first time that women’s rights were used as a justification to intervene in Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, they too used women’s rights as a way to legitimize their invasion and occupation. In the cities, they banned child marriage, granted women the right to choose their partners, and encouraged girls to enroll in schools and universities.  By the early eighties, women held parliamentary seats and even the office of vice-president. Thus, in recent history, invasion in Afghanistan has always been intimately tied to promoting women’s rights and gender equality.

Recent efforts to promote women’s rights and gender equality—in Afghanistan and other nations—through the Women, Peace, and Security agenda (WPS) prioritize the protection of women from harm and promote the participation of women in the public sphere. Indeed, protection and participation are two key pillars of the WPS agenda that have received the most international attention. The ten United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions that make up the agenda either focus on the protection of women from sexual violence (the majority of resolutions) or the participation of women in peacekeeping and conflict resolution. None of the resolutions directly touch on the third pillar of prevention, which often gets ignored in this agenda. Read more