How Feminists Can Support Afghan Women Living Under the Taliban

When the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, it froze billions of dollars in Afghan assets, grinding many of the country’s most essential operations to a halt and spreading misery. The US government must release those funds.

A woman receiving treatment at the Afghan-Japan Communicable Disease Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 29, 2021. (Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images)

Since the Taliban took control of Kabul and Afghanistan’s central government on August 15, efforts to support Afghan women have become extremely challenging. According to some prominent US feminists with strong ties to Afghan women, the Taliban “has no legitimacy beyond the brutal force it commands,” and governments, the United Nations, and regional actors should not recognize or work with it. For some, this means isolating the Taliban by continuing to freeze Afghan funds held overseas and suspending any assistance that is coordinated with a government agency.

But does that position actually help Afghan women?

There’s little question that gains made by Afghan women over the past twenty years, particularly urban women, have been rolled back since the Taliban returned to power. The Taliban said girls would be allowed to go to school, but in some parts of the country, girls are being kept out of grades seven to twelve. While female students have continued to attend private universities, most women enrolled in public universities have not been attending classes due to fear, canceled classes, or Taliban restrictions. Even though Taliban spokesmen insist that women can continue to work, there are frequent reports of Taliban militants ordering women to leave their workplaces.

We should all be outraged about the abuses and deterioration of rights that Afghan women are experiencing, but the Taliban is not the only cause of women’s distress right now. The economy and public services are screeching to a halt because the international community has pulled the plug on funding that is essential to the country’s basic functioning.

Afghanistan has relied on outside donors to fund its vital services for most of its modern existence. When the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, it froze $9.5 billion of the Afghan central bank’s assets and pushed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to block Afghanistan’s access to about $450 million earmarked for COVID-19 relief. Adding fuel to the fire, the World Bank suspended financing to the Afghan health care system through its Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. Given that foreign aid to Afghanistan had previously been about $8.5 billion a year — nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product — the impact of freezing these funds is catastrophic for women and their families.

There are about 220,000 teachers in Afghanistan, and UNICEF estimates that about a third of them are women. Since June, most teachers haven’t been paid their salaries. On October 6, the 45,000-member Afghan Teachers’ Association put out an urgent appeal calling attention to their dire situation: “The Ministry of Education has very few resources, and it is hard to ask our teachers to keep working without salaries. Many of them are the sole breadwinners in their families, and they are really struggling. It will be difficult to keep the schools open if we have no funds.”

It isn’t just Afghan teachers. Most of the nation’s health care workers have also been working without salaries. The country’s health care system is on the brink of collapse. World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that, due to the suspension of funding, Afghan medical facilities have been unable to buy supplies and pay salaries. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Asia-Pacific director, Kanni Wignaraja, only about 17 percent of some 2,200 health facilities in Afghanistan are fully functional, and the personnel who are working are doing so on a voluntary basis. “There is a risk that the Afghan people will have virtually no access to primary health services,” she said.

Prior to the US military withdrawal, the World Bank funded the Sehatmandi Project, a project administered by NGOs that in 2020 provided health care services to thirty million people. To avert a total collapse in health care, the UNDP recently announced that it will temporarily take over management of the Sehatmandi Project from the World Bank, but this is just a stopgap measure.

The European Union’s announcement on October 12 of a $1.2 billion aid package is welcome news. So is the announcement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the United States would help fund humanitarian aid. But it will be nearly impossible to effectively distribute aid while Afghan banks remain under US and UN sanctions, unable to access physical dollars. And humanitarian aid will not provide salaries for the nation’s civil services.

For that, Afghan’s frozen funds must be released. We understand the opposition to payment mechanisms that flow through Taliban hands. For salaries, the option of direct payments through UN agencies and NGOs is indeed the preferred option, as already existed in the case of many health care workers. But can this really be accomplished for the nation’s roughly 350,000 public workers? And how can the banking system be saved without lifting sanctions? These are issues that the Biden administration and world leaders must solve. The intricacies will be discussed at the October 11–17 World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington and at the G20 summit in Rome at the end of the month.

Feminists must also discuss the complexities. They should not take the simplistic view that a policy of noncooperation with the Taliban is the way to support women. As John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said, “Afghanistan’s underlying economic and humanitarian problems, which disproportionately affect women and girls, cannot simply be ignored because of the Taliban’s record.”

We in the West who call ourselves feminists must grapple with the intricacies and advocate for releasing funds that can stop an entire nation of forty million people from facing a future of starvation and misery.