WASHINGTON — American military officials have been out in force on Capitol Hill in recent weeks to discuss President Donald Trump’s latest Afghanistan war strategy, which includes a more limited commitment of ground forces, as well as fresh rules designed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
But behind the scenes, in courtyards and lobby shops and congressional offices, female Afghan women have been mobilizing in their own powerful way. At a time when the international spotlight is firmly focused on men who fight for the Taliban, a different story is unfolding about how Afghan women have evolved over the last 12 years of war.
At a March 7 conference of female Afghan human rights activists organized by Georgetown University, panelists and listeners quoted Dost Mohammed Nazir, an Afghan fighter-turned-government minister, as telling them: “If you want rights, you will have to get them.”
There’s a pressing urgency for women activists to keep up their activism as the United States and Afghanistan consider ways to extract the government from a risky battle against the Taliban that threatens to deteriorate to the point of civil war. But some women insist that the sudden scrutiny must include a discussion of concerns from other quarters: The Ghani government’s persistent failure to protect female survivors of rape and sexual assault, for example, or the closure of some shelters that help women escape from domestic violence.
The activists said no one has looked into those issues.
The United States has given more than $10 billion in financial assistance to the Afghan government since 2002, and in recent months has suspended many of the financial funds until the international community can be assured that funding isn’t being redirected to security forces hostile to the United States.
“They just keep giving the money, and that money flows into the pocket of the Ghani government,” said Somvie Liu, an activist and author who lives in Kabul. “The biggest guarantee is not in the security forces but in the legal and governance structures. The basic rights of women are a basis for ending violence.
“There’s also widespread sexism and the social discriminations against women,” Liu said. “The fear of father-in-laws killing your daughter … if men and women get along, they’ll kill each other.”
Lately, that fear has drawn more media attention, although it seems to be based less on evidence than fear. The results of a census of women in Afghanistan released last month showed that the number of Afghan women has risen since 2001. There were 5.6 million women living in the country in 2015 — up from 4.6 million in 2001.
The Taliban, however, maintains that its recent battlefield losses of U.S. and Afghan forces amount to a victory in the war on women’s rights.
The Ghani government has also faced criticism for killing foreign aid workers, which has caused great consternation in humanitarian circles that are trying to help Afghans escape the violence.
Such criticism puts them at odds with lawmakers and human rights activists such as Malalai Joya, a former member of Parliament and activist who was imprisoned on terrorism charges.
“In the U.S., they don’t see war as a source of poverty,” Joya said of female activists. “But you don’t know about Afghanistan.”
In 2011, Joya, her supporters and family members were attacked by soldiers loyal to Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president. Joya suffered serious head injuries and brain damage in that attack. It left her unfit to serve in parliament for five years.
In recent months, Joya has met a number of men who are trying to engage her in dialogue with the government. “I understand that it’s really hard for this government to change their mindset,” she said.