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Support for Gender Equality: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan (February 2021)

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
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Advancing the status and rights of women and girls has been an important goal of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan since 2002. Three U.S. administrations and the Congress have shown significant commitment to this goal, both as a means of achieving broader U.S. strategic objectives in the country, and as a goal worthy in its own right. SIGAR found that from 2002 to 2020, the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Defense (DOD) disbursed at least $787.4 million for programs that specifically and primarily supported Afghan women and girls in the areas of health, education, political participation, access to justice, and economic participation. This understates the total U.S. investment in women and girls, however, since hundreds of additional U.S. programs and projects included an unquantifiable gender component.

Afghan women and girls have made substantial gains over the past nearly two decades. They have greater access to life-saving health care, and work as legislators, judges, teachers, health workers, civil servants, journalists, and business and civil society leaders. As many as 3.5 million girls are enrolled in school, out of roughly 9 million students. Afghanistan’s legal framework—at least on paper—offers women many protections, including equal rights for women and men.

Yet across these measures, data are often poor, the gains are fragile, and significant barriers to progress persist. Moreover, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are nearly double what they were in 2009. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, in 2019, 12 percent of civilian casualties were women, and 30 percent were children. The poverty rate was at 55 percent as of 2016–2017, higher than in 2003—and in danger of spiking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, despite real improvements, Afghanistan remains one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman—with high maternal mortality ratios, endemic gender-based violence, and limited access to education and health care.

Today, U.S. policymakers face a critical question: After nearly two decades of substantial support for gender equality in Afghanistan, how can the United States best support Afghan women and girls in the future, preserving and expanding on the gains they have made—in the midst of conflict, poverty, a global pandemic, and the prospect of an Afghan government in which the Taliban exerts considerable influence?

This report, the ninth Lessons Learned Program report to be issued by SIGAR, seeks to answer this core question. To do so, the report asks the following questions: What is the historical and cultural context in which the United States and other donors have aimed to support Afghan women? What was the U.S. strategy for doing so, and how did agencies implement that strategy? What does available evidence say about the gains for Afghan women and girls, the durability of those gains, and ongoing barriers to progress?

What U.S. activities since 2002 have worked or not worked to improve women’s lives, and what assumptions and theories of change drove U.S. activities? What are the future threats to and opportunities for advancing women and girls in Afghanistan? And finally, what lessons can we draw to ensure future efforts are not in vain? The report acknowledges that U.S. programs and initiatives occurred within a constellation of other donors’ reconstruction efforts targeting women and girls, which are outside the scope of this report.

Woven throughout the report are themes and quotes from a body of 65 interviews conducted with Afghans in 2020, commissioned by SIGAR. The interviews highlight a range of perspectives on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, U.S. efforts to support women and girls, the challenges women face, negotiations with the Taliban, and other issues. Many interviewees voiced praise for U.S. efforts to expand gender equality, with increased access to education often seen as the greatest post-2001 gain for women and girls. However, interviewees cited insecurity, restrictive social norms, and harassment as key constraints to women’s participation in society.

The report is laid out in 12 chapters:

• Chapter 1 discusses historical and cultural context, including Afghanistan’s history of reform efforts regarding gender equality, the legacy of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, and the disparities between urban and rural women. It also discusses the challenge of changing social norms, and defines key terms.

• Chapter 2 explores the effects of the last 19 years of war on women and children.

• Chapter 3 assesses U.S. strategies related to support for Afghan women and girls and gender equality, and how those strategies evolved over time.

• Chapter 4 provides an overview of State, USAID, and DOD programming to support women and girls across key sectors, and assesses the U.S. government’s gender mainstreaming approach.

The report then examines five key areas of women’s and girls’ advancement: health, education, political participation, access to justice, and economic participation. Each chapter first assesses the gains made since 2001 and ongoing barriers to progress; it then closely examines several U.S. programs that are representative of U.S. gender-related efforts in that sector, assessing program effectiveness and identifying common themes.

• Chapter 5 discusses access to health care, with a focus on maternal health.

• Chapter 6 discusses education at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, including community-based education.

• Chapter 7 discusses women’s political participation, at the national level in parliament, in sub-national governance, as voters, and in civil society organizations.
This chapter also highlights the importance of women’s participation and gender issues in the media.

• Chapter 8 discusses access to justice, explores the legal framework for women’s rights and combating gender-based violence, and examines women’s employment in the justice sector.

• Chapter 9 discusses women’s economic participation, including employment in different sectors and women-owned businesses.

• Chapter 10 discusses efforts to increase women’s participation in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and the significant challenges facing women serving in these forces.

• Chapter 11 discusses current political, security, and economic challenges that threaten to undermine or undo women’s gains of the past 19 years—including peace negotiations, the drawdown of U.S. troops, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also explores women’s participation in peace negotiations, opportunities for preserving and building on post-2001 gains, as well as Taliban practices toward women today, and what these indicate about how the Taliban might govern if they are integrated into the Afghan government.

• Chapter 12 concludes with the report’s findings, lessons, and recommendations for U.S. agencies and policymakers.