Afghan Women and Girls: Status and Congressional Action

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September 11, 2020
Afghan Women and Girls: Status and Congressional Action
The status of Afghan women and girls has improved since
protections. The 2004 Afghan constitution prohibits
2001 by some metrics, but arguably remains precarious.
discrimination on the basis of gender and enshrines equal
Given the formerly ruling Taliban’s views on women’s
rights between men and women. It mandates that at least
rights, and entrenched cultural attitudes (particularly in
two women be elected to the lower house of parliament
rural areas), the status of Afghan women and girls has long
from each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, creating a quota
been a topic of congressional concern and action. Concern
of 68 women out of 250 seats (about 27%); similarly, 17%
among some Members of Congress has increased in light of
of seats in the upper house of parliament are set aside for
the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops, scheduled to be
women. Additionally, the government has committed to
completed by spring 2021. Some experts warn that a full
achieving 30% representation of women in the civil service
U.S. military withdrawal could pave the way for the
(currently at 27%) and increasing the number of women in
Taliban to return to power—either by military force or
the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces
through a political settlement—and that women’s rights
(ANDSF) (slightly less than 2%). Nevertheless, some
could be compromised. Since 2001, Members of Congress
recent surveys have suggested that traditional, restrictive
have used a number of oversight and funding-related
views of gender roles and rights, including views consistent
legislative measures to promote and safeguard the rights of
with the Taliban’s former practices, remain broadly held,
Afghan women, and may consider the efficacy and
especially in rural areas and among younger men.
sustainability of such approaches as the U.S. reduces its
Despite efforts to promote women’s rights, problems such
military footprint and as the Afghan conflict and political
as discrimination, harassment, and violence against women
dynamic evolve.
reportedly remain endemic in government-controlled areas
Status of Women
and even in government ministries. In 2009, then-President
Hamid Karzai issued, as a decree, the “Elimination of
Decades of war after 1978 and the repressive five-year rule
Violence Against Women” law, which makes widespread
of the Taliban (see below) severely undermined the rights
practices such as forced marriage and honor killings
and development of Afghan women, who had been granted
unlawful. Parliamentarians blocked the law’s ratification,
equal rights under the 1964 constitution. Since the 2001 fall
describing it as against Islam. The government “has not
of the Taliban, rights of Afghan women have been
taken meaningful steps to enforce” the law, according to
recognized in areas such as political representation and
Human Rights Watch in 2019. Reports indicate that
access to education, employment, and health care.
prosecutions of abuses against women increasingly result in
However, Afghan women still lag behind Afghan men, as
convictions, though only a small percentage of cases are
well as women globally, on many development indicators
registered formally with the police or courts.
(see Figure 1).
The Taliban and Women’s Rights
Figure 1. Selected Development Indicators
During their rule, the Taliban effectively “forced Afghan
women to disappear entirely from public view,” according
to writer Ahmed Rashid. Based on their particularly
conservative interpretation of Islamic practice, the Taliban
prohibited women from working, attending school after age
eight, and appearing in public without a male blood relative
and without wearing a burqa. Women accused of breaking
these or other restrictions suffered severe corporal or capital
punishment, often publicly. These practices attracted near-
universal condemnation from the international community.
The Taliban, who have held territory in parts of
Afghanistan for years and by some measures now control or
contest nearly half of the country’s area, have given
conflicting signs about their current stance. They have not
Source: Created by CRS. Data from U.N. Development Program,
described in detail how they now view women’s rights or
World Bank, World Health Organization.
what role women would play in a Taliban-governed society.
Notes: GNI= Gross National Income; PPP= purchasing power parity
Skeptics note that the pledge frequently made by
contemporary Taliban leaders to safeguard the rights of
women “according to Islam” is subjective and echoes
The Afghan government, with considerable U.S. and
international support, has ensured some representation for
similar pledges made by the Taliban while in power. In
women in government and has instituted some legal
February 2020, deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani
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Afghan Women and Girls: Status and Congressional Action
wrote of “an Islamic system … where the rights of women
ANDSF ($10 million authorized in FY2020). Members
that are granted by Islam—from the right to education to
interested in guaranteeing that a certain share of U.S.
the right to work—are protected.” The Taliban claim to not
development aid supports Afghan women could consider
oppose education for girls, and in Taliban-controlled areas
reauthorizing minimum amounts, or directing funding for
some girls are attending primary school. Generally, the
certain projects or objectives related to women and girls.
Taliban have allowed girls’ education until sixth grade
Conditionality. Secretary of State Pompeo said in Kabul in
when the local community advocates for it; where it does
not, girls’ schools are closed.
June 2019 that Afghanistan’s future international relations
A 2018 study could not
identify a single girls’ secondary school open in areas of
would depend in part on “what Afghans do to maintain the
civil rights of women.” Congress at times has considered
heavy Taliban influence or control. Additionally, the
conditioning assistance on the protection of women’s rights.
Taliban are accused of numerous attacks against girls’
For example, the House Appropriations Committee-passed
schools in recent years, most recently in February 2020.
FY2019 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs
Afghan women, with U.S. support, have sought to make
appropriations bill (H.R. 6385) would have required the
their voices heard as Afghans look ahead to prospective
Secretary of State to certify that the Afghan government is
talks between Kabul and the Taliban. A number of women
protecting women’s rights (among other conditions) before
participated in July 2019 talks between Taliban and Afghan
obligating funds; that provision was not included in the
representatives (including some government officials who
final FY2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act. Some
attended in a personal capacity). After the signing of the
Members have also proposed conditioning the U.S. military
U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020, the Afghan
presence on guarantees for Afghan women (see H.R. 2060).
government formed a 21-member negotiating team, which
Section 1213 of the House-passed FY2021 NDAA (H.R.
includes five women, one of whom survived an August
6395) would prohibit the use of funds to withdraw U.S.
2020 assassination attempt near Kabul. Despite steps hailed
forces below certain levels until the Administration submits
as progress by both sides, talks remain complicated by a
a report that includes an analysis of the impact of a U.S.
number of issues, including continued Taliban violence.
withdrawal on Afghan women’s rights. Congress could
consider aid conditionality as a means of influencing how a
U.S Funding: Congressional Approaches
prospective future Afghan government, including one in
Improving conditions for Afghan women has been one
which the Taliban play a part, treats women’s rights. Such a
prominent objective of U.S. development efforts since at
government could reject conditionality based on women’s
least 2001, when Congress passed the Afghan Women and
rights as unwarranted or unwelcome.
Children Relief Act (P.L. 107-81), authorizing education
Oversight, monitoring, and evaluation. Various
and health assistance for Afghan women. According to a
congressional subcommittees have held hearings and
2019 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan
briefings related to Afghan women and U.S. policy, and
Reconstruction (SIGAR) report, Congress has appropriated
Congress has separately tasked other entities (most notably
over $1 billion for USAID, State, and DOD-administered
SIGAR) with oversight in this area. Successive SIGAR
gender-related programs in Afghanistan, and an additional
$1 billion on programs in which women’s advancement was
audits and reports have identified problems with U.S.-
funded programs to support Afghan women. One 2014
a component over the past two decades. Since U.S.-Taliban
SIGAR audit reported that U.S. agencies struggled to track
talks began in 2018, some Members of Congress appear to
the extent of U.S. funding to support Afghan women, had
have prioritized engagement on Afghan women’s rights,
unclear metrics for measuring progress, and were unable to
sending several letters in 2019 to Secretary of State Michael
assess whether observed progress was a direct result of U.S.
Pompeo on the issue. Congress directed in FY2020
programming. In 2018, SIGAR noted that the most
appropriations and authorization legislation that the
Secretary of State “promote” the participation of women in
prominent and highly funded initiative in this area,
USAID’s Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority
peace and reconciliation processes, in accordance with the
Programs (known as Promote), was hindered by insufficient
Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017 (P.L. 115-68). As
evaluation efforts and noted that it was “unclear whether
Members consider the future of U.S.-Afghan relations, they
the Afghan government has the institutional capacity to
may debate the effectiveness of U.S.-funded programs for
continue Promote’s activities once the program ends.”
Afghan women, future funding, and appropriate conditions.
S.Rept. 116-126 directs SIGAR to assess “the extent to
which the Department of State and USAID have developed
Directed funding. In some past appropriations acts,
strategies and plans for the provision of continued
Congress specified certain amounts of State Department-
reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan in the event of a
and USAID-administered assistance to be made available
peace agreement, including a review of any strategies and
for programs to support Afghan women and girls, but
plans for … protecting the rights of Afghan women and
Congress has not done so since FY2010. As in recent years,
girls.” That assessment is under development.
Section 7044 of the Further Consolidated Appropriations
Act, 2020 (Division G, P.L. 116-94), makes an unspecified
Oversight of U.S. spending may prove even harder in any
amount of funding available for “programs that protect and
more challenging security environment (including after
strengthen the rights of Afghan women and girls and
U.S. military withdrawals) and in any scenario where U.S.
promote the political and economic empowerment of
funds are provided directly to the Afghan government.
women.” Congress regularly has authorized a specific
portion of the Department of Defense-administered
Clayton Thomas, Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs
Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) to support the
Sarah R. Collins, Research Assistant
recruitment, training, and treatment of women in the
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Afghan Women and Girls: Status and Congressional Action

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