An Opportunity for Renewal? Lessons Learned on Women, Peace, and Security in Afghanistan  

An Afghan woman weaves a carpet at a traditional carpet factory in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, March 6, 2023. After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, women have been deprived of many of their basic rights. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Women in Afghanistan are currently living in a situation of institutionalized gender oppression, segregation, and impunity for gendered violence, a situation that has come to be known as “gender apartheid.” Since their takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban, an ethno-nationalist and religious fundamentalist movement, have engaged in a multi-level power game to strengthen their grip on the state of Afghanistan by restricting every aspect of women’s lives. As documented by the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the country, Taliban authorities have introduced numerous edicts and instructions depriving women and girls of access to education, work, and civil and political life. Afghanistan has returned to the extreme curtailment of the rights of women and girls that existed before 2001.

In light of the devastating situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, it is important to reflect on the limitations of the past twenty years of efforts to implement the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda and how to renew its commitments in Afghanistan. There is an urgent need to pursue coherent policies to support women and girls in Afghanistan through diplomacy and practical measures. However, to do this, it is important to understand how to navigate the patriarchal practices that inhibit the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan. This “patriarchal bargaining” requires identifying and harnessing entry points and incentives for change within existing power relations—among states, among national powerbrokers such as warlords, and within provinces and communities.

What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the US decision to militarily intervene in Afghanistan, the US orchestrated the 2001 Bonn Agreement as a “grand bargain” that distributed power as a reward to Afghan warlords and political actors. This bargain created a centralized system with limited inclusion and outreach to support state-building from the bottom up. This set the scene for phases in which meaningful gender inclusion—both the presence of women as representatives of the majority of the population and commitments to address women’s needs and priorities—was continually undermined or traded off by key bargaining actors.

In a recently published article, we examine the failure of the implementation of the WPS agenda in Afghanistan to transform patriarchal structures and prevent the regression of women’s rights in the 20 years since the Bonn Agreement. During this period, women’s security and rights have been undermined by peace processes where international actors have traded off women’s rights and security to advance other agendas. They have also been compromised by well intentioned but flawed international state-building efforts that have promoted women’s rights without sufficient bargaining with and incentivization of local actors.

One example of a well intentioned but poorly implemented state-building effort supported by international actors is the gender quota system that the Bonn Agreement codified within Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution. The quota guaranteed 25 percent of seats in the Lower House (Wolesi Jirga) and 17 percent of seats in the Upper House (National Assembly) for women. In theory, this was a win for Afghan women’s participation, but the centralized constitutional design was unsuited for Afghanistan’s power dynamics. It did not account for the country’s ethnic and religious diversity or consider its communal and tribal complexities, not to mention the patriarchal structures of these groups. Powerful male warlords selected the candidates for the seats reserved for women, endowing them with the resources and security support to succeed in expensive election campaigns. Such practices gave certain women access to power but substantially reduced their agency to advance women’s priorities. Paradoxically, the gender quota system increased the parliamentary representation of women overnight, but because of corruption and rising insecurity, these women were widely mistrusted and seen by some Afghans as symbols of the corrupt political system.

Similarly, recent peacemaking efforts have exhibited international actors’ lack of understanding of or strategy for navigating patriarchal power structures in Afghanistan, including within the Taliban ranks. This was particularly evident in the 2018–2020 US-Taliban negotiations in Doha. Over nine rounds, these negotiations culminated in the Doha Agreement, which had no protections for human rights. This political deal was reached without the involvement of any representatives of the government of Afghanistan and with no pressure on the Taliban to include women in their delegation, meaning that no Afghan women were at the table.

The Doha Agreement represented a fundamental failure to engage in patriarchal bargaining and further distanced women from the peacemaking process. In its quest to secure a complete troop withdrawal, the Trump administration did not insist on including any obligations or accountability for the Taliban related to women’s rights. This emboldened the Taliban and removed any restraints to prevent them from reinstituting their previous oppressive and conservative rule. President Biden’s decision in April 2021 to follow through on this commitment to withdraw all troops—regardless of the Taliban’s increasing use of violence against civilians—and to rebuff direct negotiations with the Afghan government spoke volumes. It showed a lack of interest in upholding women’s rights on the part of the US, putting at risk the lives of Afghan women and girls, especially women leaders and women’s rights advocates who would be direct targets of the Taliban. By not prioritizing the WPS agenda, the US and other Western states sent a clear message that the Taliban could restrict the fundamental rights of women with impunity.

How Can Patriarchal Bargaining Support Women and Girls in Afghanistan?

Over the past three years, the Taliban has sealed its grip on power, virtually erasing women from public life. To date, international actors, including the UN and member states, have remained ineffective in reversing the realities of ‘gender apartheid’ in Afghanistan. To use patriarchal bargaining to support women and girls in Afghanistan today, actors engaging with the Taliban need to recognize and navigate patriarchal power relations both directly, through key actions, and indirectly, through symbolic gestures of support.

In multilateral and bilateral diplomacy, a patriarchal bargaining approach requires clear and consistent messaging and practices from international actors, reaffirming Afghan authorities’ international legal commitments to human rights and advancing future pathways for inclusive peace in Afghanistan. For instance, it is imperative that donor states meet diverse representatives of Afghanistan—women as well as men—inside and outside the country. In particular, they need to better understand and support Afghan women’s civil society. Regional powers that have begun reestablishing relations with the Taliban have a particularly vital role to play in conveying the priority placed on international commitments to the protection of human rights. Moreover, international diplomatic delegations can signal the seriousness they ascribe to the protection of women’s rights by visibly including women. Even micro-practices that may be seen as culturally sensitive, such as Western representatives wearing veils, can concede ground to the Taliban.

There is also a need for a cohesive multilateral political strategy to hold the Taliban accountable for their systemic violations of the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan in the short and long term. In the short term, states can support dialogue among Afghans in exile or the diaspora and community representatives and influential people inside Afghanistan. Such support could particularly come from states that participated in the International Security Assistance Force (2001–2014) and Resolute Support Mission (2014–2021) or that promote feminist or pro–gender equality foreign policies. These dialogues could elevate the urgency of women’s rights and security under Taliban rule in a way that current dialogues are not. For example, the UN Secretary-General’s Doha forums have not systematically paid attention to how and which women would be included and how to incentivize the Taliban to participate.

Such dialogues would also open bargaining space for Afghan women to advocate for their rights and build consensus on their priorities. It is critical to ensure that this dialogue includes women who are from and have experience in navigating diverse ethnic and political communities and who have a track record of supporting women’s empowerment in their respective grassroots communities. The lessons learned from the state-building intervention in Afghanistan suggest that simply including women does not automatically translate into the protection of women’s rights. The credibility of women leaders is important to address the fundamental needs of women and girls in Afghanistan and represent their voices.

Given that the Taliban have imposed limitations on Afghan women working inside Afghanistan and many Afghan women professionals have fled the country, the perspectives, knowledge, and cultural and linguistic skills of Afghan women are nearly absent from international programs and policymaking within Afghanistan. This is a critical gap that international organizations operating in the country can fill by creating dedicated roles for Afghan women who are dual citizens and possess the skills to work within Afghanistan and navigate patriarchal dynamics under these organizations’ protection.

In addition, member states and universities could support scholarships for Afghan girls to continue their education safely online and at overseas institutions. Member states could also create dedicated visas and psychological support programs for women’s rights activists under threat and develop programs to give Afghan women entrepreneurs access to international markets. International sporting organizations can also play a role by featuring Afghan women’s sports teams. Such actions would show solidarity with Afghan women and girls and help them improve their situation.

 In the longer term, the international campaign for the United Nations to recognize gender apartheid as a crime against humanity is vital to ensuring women’s rights and security in Afghanistan. Some states have already advanced this campaign. For instance, the UK has launched a parliamentary inquiry to contribute to the international discussion of gender apartheid at the 79th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2024.

However, past failures with patriarchal bargaining in Afghanistan underscore the need for this campaign on gender apartheid to be grounded in a political strategy. Support for the campaign needs to come not only from Western states but also from influential regional states, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, chair of the 69th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2025. Ultimately, these regional states may have more influence on the Taliban when it comes to women’s rights. Support is also needed from other non-Western states such as South Africa, which brought significant political recognition to the gender apartheid campaign when it hosted Malala Yousafzai and Afghan women’s rights activists to deliver the 21st Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in 2023.

To realize women’s meaningful security and participation, in Afghanistan and in any conflict-affected context, international actors need to understand and bargain with patriarchal powerholders. Political strategies for engaging the Taliban, whether they prioritize diplomacy over humanitarian aid or vice versa, will be ineffective unless they address the Taliban’s gender apartheid system. The fragmented and inconsistent approaches taken by international actors so far have further strengthened the Taliban’s repressive rule in Afghanistan.

States and multilateral organizations should prioritize their commitment to the WPS agenda across all diplomatic and humanitarian engagements in the country. Now is the time to reinvigorate the WPS agenda for Afghanistan through policies and programs that recognize and support the agency, resilience, and rights of Afghan women and girls.

Farkhondeh Akbari is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Gender, Peace and Security Centre, Monash University. Jacqui True is Professor of International Relations and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Elimination of Violence Against Women at Monash University.