The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Taliban said it would respect women’s rights. Then it abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs has been recently converted to the ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as seen in Kabul on Sept. 21. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
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When the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan last month, its leaders promised to respect women’s rights. But in the weeks since, the group has done little to assuage fears that it will once more bar women from politics and public life.

Among its early targets was the Women’s Affairs Ministry in Kabul, which earlier this month Taliban fighters seized and, in a particularly ominous sign, turned it into a headquarters for the group’s notoriously brutal morality police.

Afghan women’s rights activists say that the move to abolish the ministry marks a symbolic end to the formal role women have played in government over the past 20 years. It has also highlighted the vital, though incomplete, position the ministry occupied since it was first established in 2001 with the aim of promoting women’s issues and rights through Afghan laws and policies.

At the time, the ministry’s creation was a “victory,” said Bahar Jalali, a historian who founded the first gender studies program at the American University in Afghanistan. She now resides in the United States.

“It was like the dawn of a new era,” she said.

Women’s associations focused largely on vocational training had long operated in Afghanistan. And in 1945, the building that housed the ministry was first purchased by what was then called the Women’s Grand Organization. By 1963, it was incorporated into the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

But when the Taliban first came to power, in 1996, the group banned women and girls from studying, working or leaving their homes without a male relative. It also routinely punished and, in some cases, publicly executed women it accused of disobeying its rule.

So when the ministry first opened after the U.S.-led war that toppled the Taliban, it was institutionally weak and lacked qualified and experienced staffers. The Afghan government also gave it limited support, leaving the ministry overdependent on foreign funding that poured in without strategic planning, according to a 2003 report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“A much more profound transformation is needed — in the ministry and in the international approach — if it is to begin addressing gender issues in a real and sustainable way,” the report said, adding that the ministry was “particularly reliant on the international community for technical and financial support.”

As a result, the ministry was plagued by many of the same troubles that afflicted the U.S.-led project in Afghanistan. Foreign donors funneled millions of dollars into projects with little oversight or plans for sustainability, allowing corruption to flourish alongside the indifference of Afghan leaders.

While the ministry oversaw “some really, really good projects” at the start, Jalali said, one major issue was that international aid was often “shallow and superficial.”

A lot of the foreign-funded projects for women’s employment, health or education were “just check marks” for the international community, she said. “They were not monitored. They were not evaluated. They just wanted to say, ‘Okay, we are here to administer women’s projects.’ ”

Another problem was that much of the aid ended up benefiting women in major cities like Kabul. In rural areas, where a violent insurgency was being waged, women saw little of the assistance earmarked for reconstruction.

Despite the problems, however, Afghan women generally gained better access to education, employment, and business and political opportunities. Development aid and training also helped decrease the country’s shockingly high rates of maternal and infant mortality.

A decade in, “you really did see competent women emerge,” Jalali said. “A class of women who … knew how to speak to the international community and who knew the needs of Afghanistan.”

One of those women was Hasina Safi, an Afghan refugee who returned to help rebuild her country in 2005. For 15 years, she worked as a rights activist, and in 2020, she was appointed acting minister of women’s affairs.

With the ministry, “whether someone liked it or not, there was a seat for women at the table,” she said, adding that it was “the address” for policymaking concerning women in Afghanistan.

Once she was at the helm, Safi pushed to give the ministry more of a say in the budget-making process and pressed for more oversight of women-related projects elsewhere in the government.

“There were thousands of projects that the ministry did not even know were being implemented,” she said.

In the weeks before the Taliban takeover, Safi was preparing an assessment of the ministry’s work, which she planned to present to the cabinet this month. Instead, she ended up moving between a series of safe houses until she ultimately escaped from the country in late August.

Alison Davidian, the deputy country representative in Afghanistan for U.N. Women, the United Nations agency focused on gender equity and female empowerment, called the removal of the Women’s Affairs Ministry “a further step backward.”

“Such ministries are found around the world and reflect the commitment of governments to ensure the protection and promotion of women’s rights,” she said in an emailed statement.

That’s also why Safi is urging the ministry’s former donors, including the United States and United Nations, to make aid to the Taliban government conditional on its commitments to respect women’s rights.

“The United Nations should very clearly put specific criteria about the participation of women, about preserving the gains, the laws that have helped, for any future commitment,” she said in an interview from London. “Now is the time to act.”

“We cannot evacuate all the women from Afghanistan,” she said. “And no one wants to leave their home, their country.”