This is the second time in less than six months that we have seen unspeakable violence on our screens. The ongoing coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows men and women taking up arms, organizing resistance, and delivering food and supplies to the vulnerable. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing to the borders, hoping to escape the violence and chaos of war. The figures are only expected to rise further.
Thousands of miles to the southeast, similar images show Afghan men, women, and children trekking across the mountains in an attempt to escape starvation and terror. The world in 2022 appears to be bleak.
It’s International Women’s Day today. Every year on March 8th, the international community assesses the status of women and girls. With global conflict raging, we must consider how women fare in times of war and instability this year. They are frequently portrayed as helpless, passive victims, when nothing could be further from the truth. They play critical roles in maintaining, defending, and rebuilding peace. They witness firsthand the devastation caused by armed conflict in their communities, and research indicates that they have solutions. However, they are frequently sidelined, and their opinions and voices are ignored.
Today, you will hear lofty declarations about the government’s commitment to global women’s rights in the United States. The significance of gender equality to global prosperity, as well as every woman’s right to live a fully empowered life. But, against the backdrop of Afghan women returning to life under the Taliban, with all of the horrors that entails, those declarations ring hollow. The United States is no longer a trustworthy partner for Afghan women. Women all over the world, particularly in conflict zones, are debating whether they should seek help elsewhere.
Until recently, the United States was regarded as a global leader in gender equality, with legislation promoting and protecting women in conflict and peacebuilding. Its Women, Peace, and Security Strategy was exemplary in recognizing the significance of putting women at the center of peace and security policy. However, Afghanistan was its first test, and it failed miserably.
Afghanistan is, indeed, a one-of-a-kind case. The Taliban’s brutality and persecution of women and girls is unparalleled. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are not permitted to attend school and women are not permitted to leave the house without a male chaperone. As a result, it is easy for people outside the country to dismiss Afghanistan’s lessons as overly extreme.
However, it is also true that the United States bears a unique responsibility for Afghan women. It supported and invested in a new generation of leaders and activists committed to democratic and equitable values. Women took up the mantle of leadership with skill and passion, collaborating with the United States on projects ranging from education and healthcare to the rule of law – often at great risk to themselves and their families. Imagine their surprise when they were ignored and left behind during the chaos of America’s largest evacuation operation.
One of the reasons why the women, peace, and security agenda is so important is that it brings a gender perspective to conflict operations. That lens was missing from Operation Allies Welcome, as well as the entire US withdrawal. By prioritizing primarily Afghans employed by the US military, a predominantly male population, the US unwittingly deprioritized female partners and allies. Even though evacuating those who supported the military was critical, it was only the bare minimum.
The overtly gendered crisis in Afghanistan is the most visible example of why women’s voices and experiences are so important. However, women all over the world face similar challenges. Ukrainian women leaders, like their Afghan counterparts, have attempted to play an active role in their country’s security. They have been advocating for women’s full participation in Track I and Track II negotiations for months in order to advance a more comprehensive approach to regional security.