The following op-ed was originally compiled for The Diplomat and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
For women, the motivation to leave Afghanistan has increased tremendously since the Taliban takeover. But the journey abroad has become more difficult and dangerous, too.
These restrictions will have long-term repercussions. Girls barred from secondary school will not qualify for higher education and will face greater obstacles accessing basic opportunities in the future. Women previously employed are now without a source of income, in a country where 97 percent of the population is already at risk of poverty. In many cases, these women are the primary or only income earners in their families. Additionally, since the Taliban takeover in 2021, the European Union Agency for Asylum and the United Nations have reported that female-headed households in Afghanistan are at a heightened risk of food insecurity.
Structural barriers also challenge women’s financial autonomy. A 24-year-old Afghan woman employed in an NGO in Herat, and interviewed by the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC), noted that many Afghan women lack the documentation required to open bank accounts. In the few cases where they possess the necessary documentation, restrictions on women’s presence in public make it difficult to access banking services.
Simultaneously, Afghan women who have relied on aid organizations for food packages, clothing, cookware, toiletries, cash, or voucher-based assistance will gradually lose access to this lifeline as international aid organizations — since the ban on employing women — continue to wrestle with how to resume activities in Afghanistan. Female staff are required to reach Afghan women most in need. The Afghan population will only be further segregated along gender lines, pushing ever greater numbers of Afghan women and their households further into destitution. Unmarried, divorced, or widowed Afghan women — those without a male guardian — will be at an increased risk of persecution should they not be able to comply with gendered bans. Women unable to sustain their households or access protection assistance will be left with few alternatives but to leave Afghanistan.
Afghan women, particularly those who are unable to leave due to a lack of financial resources or access to information, are at increased risk of sex and gender-based violence. For example, as of 2021, U.N. Women reported that 28 percent of Afghan women between 20 and 24 years were married before they turned 18. Since the Taliban takeover however, the prevalence of child marriage is expected to rise as families will be forced to marry off young girls as a means of repaying debt.
Changing Dynamics of Afghan Migration
While the reasons for leaving Afghanistan for women are many and mounting, the opportunities to do so safely and legally are near absent.
Afghan migration has traditionally involved young unaccompanied men who traveled abroad to seek both work and safety, eventually arranging for family members– including women and children — to join them in a hosting country through family reunification. In the short term, this gendered dynamic is likely to be further exacerbated as increased restrictions on women’s mobility make travel even more difficult and dangerous for women. This may change, however, as circumstances in Afghanistan become increasingly untenable and more women are compelled to leave.
“I will definitely leave the country because it is just the start. Life will become worse for women, and I cannot imagine continue living in such a hell. I already convinced my brothers to accompany me to one of the neighboring countries. We will probably leave for Iran or Pakistan in the coming month.”
— 24-year-old Afghan woman, employed in a local NGO in Herat
The barriers to women’s migration are considerable, including lack of access to safe transport. Data collected through the MMC’s 4Mi initiative demonstrate that Afghan women are more likely to use air travel than men, as this is considered a safer means of travel for women. However, women’s access to air travel is now severely limited, as they are barred from traveling unless accompanied by a male family member. At the same time, access to visas and legal travel options is hindered by the closure of many foreign embassies in Afghanistan, forcing women to cross into Iran and Pakistan — often undocumented and illicitly — to approach foreign consulates. In cases where Afghan women are successful in getting that far, they face additional barriers, such as being unable to afford prohibitively expensive visa fees.
Afghan women will also face financial barriers, as costs are higher for women than men en route, and women have restricted access to income. According to 4Mi enumerators, smugglers charged $350 for unaccompanied women and $315 for unaccompanied men for a journey from Zaranj, Afghanistan, to Tehran, Iran, in December 2022. These costs will only rise with increased demand.
Afghan women’s exposure to protection risks en route is also likely to increase. 4Mi data collected among Afghans en route to Turkey prior to and after the Taliban takeover demonstrates an increase in female respondents experiencing protection risks, including having to pay higher bribes to cross borders; facing extortion, harassment, robbery, sexual and physical violence; undergoing detention; and witnessing death. The greatest increase was observed around female respondents’ experiences of detention (increased by 12 percent), witnessing the death of another refugee or migrant (increased by 10 percent), and physical violence (increased by 7 percent). Female respondents reported that this violence was most often perpetrated by smugglers, border guards, and the police.
4Mi data also reflects an increase in female respondents reporting greater involvement of criminal gangs in acts of violence (increased by 9 percent), followed by smugglers (increased by 9 percent) and border guards (increased by 6 percent) en route to Turkey since the Taliban takeover. In short, while for the women the perceived need to leave the country has been increasing since the Taliban takeover, the irregular journeys many are forced to take due to the lack of legal options have become more dangerous since then too.
For those who undertake the journey, challenges do not end at the border. Afghan women that managed to flee immediately following the Taliban takeover remain stuck in Iran and Pakistan, without documentation, as they wait for a durable solution. Afghan women in Pakistan on temporary visas also face the possibility of being deported back to Afghanistan once their visa expires. Many are activists, journalists, or university students. These women are at an added risk of being targeted by the Taliban should they be deported. As returning to Afghanistan is not an option for these women, the other alternative is to travel to European countries using irregular means via Turkey and seek international protection – a journey of significant risk.
Afghan Women Need Safe Migration Pathways
Afghan women are doubly at risk, facing untenable circumstances in Afghanistan, and shrinking and increasingly dangerous and costly migration options. Safe and affordable pathways out of the country are critical, and protection in exile should be guaranteed. Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have declared their decision to grant international protection to all Afghan women and girls seeking asylum. Germany has started a program dedicated to relocating Afghan women and other at-risk groups who are in Afghanistan. However, these initiatives presume that Afghan women are able to leave Afghanistan and travel to countries offering asylum – an option many Afghan women don’t have to begin with. These initiatives also do not ensure that Afghan women and girls who are stuck in neighboring host countries or in transit receive the protection assistance they need.
Canada, Germany, and France — hosting large Afghan populations — could expedite the issuance of family reunification visas and prioritize the creation of pathways for Afghan women to leave Afghanistan as a part of their commitment to protect Afghans who are at-risk since the Taliban takeover. Meanwhile, international humanitarian organizations working with Afghan women in Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey could increase gender-specific protection monitoring and response activities. This includes establishing mechanisms at key transit points to provide Afghan women with reliable information on potential risks, gender-specific assistance related to physical and mental health, and options for seeking asylum or subsidiary protection. The international community must maintain pressure on the Taliban to ease restrictions on women’s mobility as well as repeal or introduce more exemptions to decrease restricting women’s access to education, employment, healthcare, and freedom of movement.
In the face of bans being imposed on Afghan women’s mobility, humanitarian actors should advocate for sustainable solutions to make sure Afghan women can continue to contribute to the social, political, and economic progress of the country, while receiving protection assistance from aid organizations. This will require the engagement of any number of actors, particularly through the leadership of Afghan women. Policymakers, advocates, NGOs, diaspora organizations, and others will need to coordinate toward tangible targets, and donors must commit for the long term.