The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Here are four concrete actions the U.S. should take immediately to help Afghan women activists

Afghan women and children pray at a mosque that is offering them shelter in Kabul on Aug. 13. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Melanne Verveer is executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and a former U.S. ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Tanya Henderson is founder and executive director of Mina’s List.

H. hears she is next on the Taliban’s hit list of women activists. It is one of many death threats she has received — that’s why she fled her home in Herat and why we are identifying her by only the first letter of her last name. H. used to help implement U.S. programs to support Afghan women’s participation in society. She is in a safe house in Kabul and is desperately seeking a route out of Afghanistan.

The situation for women in Afghanistan grows more dire by the hour as the Taliban marches toward Kabul. Women are told they can’t leave their homes without a male guardian; some have been flogged in the streets; some have been killed. Hundreds of women journalists, activists and judges have been assassinated in recent years. Unless evacuated, many more are poised to become Taliban victims.

The United States is working on Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to protect Afghan interpreters and others who supported the U.S. mission. But women like H. also need our urgent attention.

Ann Telnaes cartoon: America has failed Afghan women

The State Department announced an expansion of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) on Aug. 2 through a Priority 2 (P-2) designation. The new category provides at-risk Afghans who are not eligible for Special Immigrant Visas an opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States.

However, it remains almost impossible to access the Refugee Admissions Program.

The U.S. government justified its invasion of Afghanistan partly on the basis of women’s rights. We invested heavily in Afghan women to build a democratic society. We must ensure that the worst does not happen to our Afghan women allies.

The U.S. government should urgently take these four steps:

First, charter direct evacuation flights for Afghan women activists most imminently under threat. Already, too many have died in Taliban assassination campaigns.

U.S. refugee admissions guidelines require applicants and their eligible family members to relocate to a third country — at their own expense — before their cases can even begin to be processed. Visas are difficult for Afghan women activists to come by in the best of times. With the twin disasters of covid-19 and war now raging across Afghanistan, most countries have ceased offering visas altogether.

Some U.S. officials have suggested women go to the borders of neighboring countries to claim asylum. But the Taliban is rapidly seizing control of border crossings and closing major roadways. Asking Afghan women to make their way to the border is like leading lambs to a slaughter.

Chartering direct evacuation flights, as the United States is already doing for thousands of Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, is the best way to get the most at-risk women’s right activists and their families out of harm’s way. Canada has already begun doing so.

Second, direct a significant portion of the $1.125 billion appropriated for Afghan refugees in the emergency supplemental passed on July 30 to ensure the priority program is strongly implemented. This should include some of the $100 million that President Biden authorized for “persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan,” for livelihood assistance for women activists who manage to relocate.

Afghanistan has the largest gender gap between women’s and men’s economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum. Many of the women activists targeted by the Taliban will have little means of supporting themselves and their families while unemployed in a foreign country. Directing even part of the authorized funding to help at-risk Afghan women leaders and their families survive while they wait on case processing would provide a lifeline — and signal the Biden administration’s commitment to human rights defenders.

Third, establish a special parole program for at-risk Afghan human rights defenders; women’s rights activists; and politicians, journalists and other highly visible women being targeted for their refusal to conform to Taliban-dictated gender norms.

Humanitarian parole, granted due to a compelling emergency or significant public benefit, can temporarily allow into the United States someone who is otherwise inadmissible. For some Afghan women activists, survival has become a matter of weeks — or days. Humanitarian parole can be applied for within Afghanistan; case reviews typically happen within two business days, and the typical three-month processing time can be shortened to days if the emergency situation warrants it.

Fourth, establish a high-level interagency refugee coordinator to manage refugee processing and relocation across the U.S. government and greatly increase processing capacity. The coordinator would manage implementation of refugee policy, including different types of visas and humanitarian parole. Current efforts lack not only processing capacity but also clear communication on what the new U.S. policies mean in practice.

Those Afghans who make it to the United States are often in severe distress. Upon arrival, they face disorganization and an uncertain future. All actors need to collectively mobilize and coordinate to ensure that Afghans can relocate swiftly and with dignity.

The Biden administration has prioritized gender equality and implementing the Women, Peace and Security law. Afghan women are the first real test. Someone needs to stand with those who risk their lives to stand for others. Shouldn’t it be the United States?