When Militarism Meets Gender Reform: Fixing the Contradictory Legacy of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda in Afghanistan

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.

The prevention pillar of the WPS agenda stresses the detrimental effects that conflict itself has on women. It focuses on preventing and tackling the root causes of war and violence in the first place. The emphasis is not on women, but on peace. This means invasion in the name of women’s rights and gender equality challenges one of the very core tenets of the WPS agenda. Efforts being made under the protection and participation pillars can therefore fundamentally contradict the prevention pillar of the WPS agenda. Nowhere is this contradiction more visible than in Afghanistan.

For one, the WPS agenda, and its focus on participation and protection, predominantly benefited middle-and upper-class women in urban Afghanistan. Following the US invasion, the Bonn agreement mandated a new, post-Taliban constitution that contained provisions designating women’s rights in the country. In its articles, the 2004 constitution promoted women’s access to education and set quotas to ensure women’s political participation. The legislative developments prompted some gains in gender equality for women in Afghanistan, allowing them increased participation both in the workforce and the political process. However, these socio-economic and political advancements did not necessarily translate to the rural women of Afghanistan who make up over a third of the female population.

For many women, predominantly in rural areas (i.e. Kandahar, Helmand), the US intervention did not change much in the realm of women’s rights. While the 20-year US presence offered women formal rights under the constitution, the lives of many rural women continued to resemble life under Taliban rule, with control over their circumstances and role in society determined by patriarchal kinship arrangements. Traditional social norms paired with economic underdevelopment prompted tribal resistance to the shifting political landscape in Kabul. As such, rural areas often abided by tribal laws which took precedence over Islamic and constitutional laws in deciding gender roles. In addition to normative barriers, there are structural constraints that have prevented rural women in Afghanistan from public participation. These impediments, often instigated by violence, have included high rates of poverty, threats to security, lack of education and employment opportunities, and limited access to legal protection. Given their vastly different lifestyles, some rural women did not necessarily feel connected with more elite, urban women, nor did they subscribe to the “Westernized” model of citizenship that was instilled in Kabul. This divide between upper and middle-class urban women and rural women in Afghanistan was further exacerbated, at times, by disparate security concerns, fomented by higher levels of protracted conflict in rural Afghanistan.

Security concerns have historically been an area of difficulty for both urban and rural women in Afghanistan. In July 2021, UNAMA reported a record number of women and children killed or wounded in Afghanistan. Urban areas of Afghanistan, for example, have seen an increase in targeted killings and attacks intended to drive women from public participation. Despite the failures of the WPS agenda for both groups, it remains clear that rural women have been especially marginalized. Not only did rural women lose out on benefits from the participation and protection agenda, other factors including increased concentrations of conflict, socioeconomic constraints, and the remote nature of the region, led these women to be disproportionally affected by the harmful outcomes of the ongoing conflict—a failure of the prevention pillar. This failure is symbolized by the decades of fighting, characterized by a barrage of deadly crossfire, IEDs, and bombings that has left many vulnerable to the long-term effects of violence from psychological trauma to being direct casualties of the war. Given the high cost of conflict in these areas, rural women may be compelled to support any regime that promises to establish peace and security, even at the cost of greater gender equality.

Although many rural Afghan women did not directly benefit from WPS programming, they have played a vital role in ensuring their own forms of participation, protection, and prevention. Findings from a 2021 qualitative study on rural women in Afghanistan indicate that these women are well-informed, with a solid grasp of the political and security issues in the country. Given their first-hand experiences with the deadly impacts of war, these women repeatedly stress the importance of peace, or at least a reduction in violence for sustainable gains in gender equality. The lesson learned here is that any effort to pursue the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in Afghanistan must entail all three pillars of WPS—especially conflict prevention—to ensure sustainable progress for all women in the region. This means first and foremost that women’s rights and gender equality cannot be tied to militarism and war. Instead, peaceful, locally-led interventions to develop culturally appropriate programs to promote women’s rights and participation should be prioritized. And, the international community must allow Afghan women to take the lead.

Afghan women have already demonstrated their capacity to spearhead the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Despite the dangerous conditions for resistance in the country, these women continue their struggle for equality—organizing protests, covering key stories on the ground, and using their voices to emphasize the urgency of the unfolding crisis in their country. As the international community develops its strategy toward the Taliban regime, these women must play a key role in their agenda-setting. Afghan women themselves have made clear what is needed from the international community to make locally-led, peaceful interventions for women’s rights possible, including the prevention of violence and unequivocal international support for their resistance efforts.

Afghan women are not passive recipients of programming around WPS, they are experts capable of planning and implementing the effective delivery of key humanitarian aid and gender programs. Global leadership must meaningfully involve these women in their efforts to pursue peace and security in the region. On the sidelines of the UN’s 2021 open-debate on WPS, Asila Wardak, activist and co-founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, explains how to make this happen: “please do not talk about me in these discussions, create spaces for me and other Afghan women leaders to talk directly to the Taliban.”

This article is part of a series reflecting on the current state of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.

Zinab Attai is a PhD student in the department of Government at Cornell University. Sabrina Karim is the Hardis Assistant Professor in the department of Government at Cornell University. Her research focuses on conflict processes, policing, peacekeeping, and gender.