How the World Failed Afghan Women

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How the World Failed Afghan Women

Why millions of dollars in international aid – much of it from the U.S. – failed to achieve lasting change for Afghanistan’s women.

How the World Failed Afghan Women
Credit: Flickr/ USAID

As the Taliban insurgency tightened its grips around key cities across Afghanistan in 2020 and 2021, the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, was still spending tens of millions to help give Afghan women a fighting chance in the workplace and, along with other assistance programs, to make sure they were compensated for injuries and deaths in their families.

Oxford educated gender specialist Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, who has three decades of experience in Afghanistan, was trying to help one of USAID’s implementing partners in charge of a $40 million assistance scheme for victims of conflict. If a male “breadwinner” died, assistance was given to any other male relative, based on the (often false) assumption that he would hand it over to the widow and her children.

“When I challenged this and told them they must hand assistance directly to the widows, I was told that the funds had been distributed to men only because the women were too emotional and traumatized to handle the responsibility, and that women could not easily travel to distribution sites,” Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, a British citizen, told The Diplomat in an interview.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul wanted to move funds expeditiously, and officials also insisted that the implementing partner give a full $12 million to the Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled. “We knew the ministry did not care about the women or the victims of terrorism we were trying to help,” added Azarbaijani-Moghaddam. “They kept asking us to spend the money on armored cars for the minister’s wife and relatives. There also was pressure to hire the minister’s relatives as experts with high salaries.”

With USAID’s insistence that millions of dollars be pushed through the corrupt ministry, reports would be fudged to read that the project was a success and had hit its “target” of helping Afghan women.

The U.S. government had set forth a modern global “gender strategy” tailored from studies showing that higher levels of gender equality are associated with a lower propensity for conflict. However, the near complete collapse of U.S., U.N., and nearly all other international efforts to help Afghan women had already begun as early as 2009, as the Taliban insurgency intensified.

The failure was not due to a lack of spending. A February 2021 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report on “Support for Gender Equality” listed $787 million spent by the U.S. government “for programs specifically and primarily to support Afghan women and girls from 2002 to 2020,” with hundreds of millions more spent indirectly through “gender mainstreaming” on other programs designed to raise the livelihoods, rights and income of women.

“Gender analyses were supposed to be undertaken before or during program design so that the recommendations could be incorporated into final program documents,” Mary Fontaine, a former senior gender adviser at USAID/Afghanistan told SIGAR investigators. “But that rarely happened.  Due to long and onerous development, review, and approval processes, gender analyses were typically undertaken after programs were designed so as not to slow down new programming even more.  This meant that inputs for women were added later. The incorporation of gender analysis recommendations was ad hoc, not strategic, and often superficial, sometimes merely included in a paragraph stating that ‘Gender considerations will be considered.’”

The massive U.S. funding for Afghan women had been seeded early in November 2001 when First Lady Laura Bush, while condemning the Taliban’s “severe repression of women in Afghanistan,” stated that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Leading members of Congress, both Democrat and Republican, accepted that view with little quibbling as coffers opened.

The list of programs designed to help Afghan women grew longer and longer over the years. It ran the gamut: programs to discourage domestic violence, schemes to help Afghan women raise and market chickens, turning women into community police officers, and projects to promote women’s expertise in the health care sector.

“Everyone had another idea of how to help save Afghan women from poverty and from their own menfolk,” said Atefa Kakar, an Afghan woman who worked for U.N. Women as well as the U.N. political mission.

Some efforts had a documented positive impact, for example, raising the life expectancy of women from 58 to 66 years and tamping down on high rates of infant mortality. Since the Taliban takeover in August this year, some women’s advocates have argued vigorously that the taste of freedom and equality that the Afghan women received over two decades will drive change in a future Afghanistan, despite the silencing of women’s voices on the internet and on the street in recent months.

Yet the overall efforts produced only mixed results at best while they lasted, before the Taliban resumed power after a 20-year hiatus. The seizure of major cities by the openly misogynistic militants dashed the hopes of even the most optimistic Afghan women still in their homeland.

While teaching journalism at the American University of Afghanistan, arguably one of the better USAID investments at the time, including full U.S. Embassy scholarships for women, I was asked to help craft a project design for the massive $280 million USAID “Promote” effort, which would – in theory – train Afghan women to be compete directly with Afghan men in the workplace, thus producing tens of thousands of jobs. I was taken aback to read through the parameters for the initial project roll-out and see there would be no effort to raise the awareness of Afghan men on the notion that women could and should be their workforce peers. From teaching journalism classes, I knew that Afghan women were often better writers than my male students, but this didn’t mean they would get jobs with a week or two of “empowerment training.” I edited a few lines and fired off a few concerned emails to the U.S. Embassy. In the end, the USAID Promote scheme produced only a few thousand verified new hires, mostly for positions now eliminated under the new Taliban regime in Kabul.

Nor did the massive U.S. government programs to help women in the workplace adequately take into serious consideration the rampant problem of sexual exploitation, which was not unique to Afghanistan. “In the police force, after the U.S. and the United Nations insisted more women be hired, female recruits were exposed to rampant and systematic sexual exploitation and abuse, but no one addressed this officially. Reports were buried and everyone pretended [the problem] didn’t exist,” Azarbaijani-Moghaddam explained.

It should not have been a surprise to U.S. planners that so many Afghan parents didn’t want their daughters tossed into this kind of a toxic environment.

The sudden end of the Afghan conflict surprised many, but what befell the women of Afghanistan was both tragic and predictable. I remember the sinking feeling I had as a news reporter in 2009 watching a qualified U.S. brain surgeon, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves, try to recruit a terrified Afghan midwife to help start a local clinic. By day, the midwife spoke to patrolling U.S. troops but by night she lived among the Taliban and had to hide her medical devices. The Taliban had marched her at gunpoint for weeks when she tried to visit a relative in neighboring Pakistan. She whispered to the brain surgeon in my presence to please not bring her any more supplies, so that she would not be seen as working with the American military, a virtual death sentence.

Despite hundreds of millions spent on programs to assist Afghan women in the last two decades, the equivalent of years of USAID spending elsewhere around the globe on “gender equality,” the United States has next to nothing to show for its investments. Afghan women have been left broken and marginalized, often with no wages and no means to feed their children.

That does not mean that efforts to help Afghan women and girls are dead. I only hope the proactive and current head of USAID, Samantha Powers, who is also a seasoned war reporter, can help put the Afghan experience into context. The gains made by women in Europe and the United States over a hundred years could not be immediately grafted onto an largely illiterate, patriarchal nation bogged down in conflict – or conflated with a “war on terror,” for that matter.

As Azarbaijani-Moghaddam observes today, “Successful women’s movements grow organically from the bottom up with literacy and strong local women with a vision to change society from within.” In other words, the secret to assistance is not what you spend, but what you are able to build upon.