The foreign policy response to the situation for women in Afghanistan: From optics to effective change?

By Sarah Hellyer

Women’s rights as rhetoric

Concerns for the rights of Afghan women and girls were used to leverage support for the war in Afghanistan from start to finish. In her famous radio address at the beginning of the war, Laura Bush urged Western governments and the international community to amplify and protect the voice of Afghan women. Throughout the duration of the war, this sentiment was captured in the development of foreign policies which were notionally designed to facilitate women’s empowerment and prevent further curtailment of their rights.

Yet much of the political support and resourcing behind these nominal policies began to dwindle as the war continued, resulting in a failure to secure meaningful change for Afghan women following the withdrawal of US and allied forces. Now, Afghan women and girls wait to see whether the international community is serious about promoting and securing their rights, or if concerns for their wellbeing were simply optics all along. 

The frustration that Afghan women feel towards the ineffective, optics-driven policy response of the international community is summarised in the following quote from an Afghan human rights defender who spoke recently at a seminar on women and peace negotiations organised by the Castan Centre and Monash Centre for Gender Peace and Security:

“…the other side of the story is the unfair position of the international community. While in statements and press releases and their tweets they talk about women’s rights, they think that women’s rights is a priority for them, that women are half of the society in Afghanistan; in reality they have not done much in terms of protection of especially women human rights defenders in Afghanistan.”  

[Speaker’s identity withheld for security reasons]

Feminist foreign policy – a new framework for securing women’s rights?

In contrast to foreign policies which address the rights of women and gender equality as an isolated policy concern, such as those relied on by the US and other western countries throughout the war in Afghanistan, Feminist Foreign Policy takes a structural approach to securing the rights of women. Feminist foreign policy draws on critical feminist and race scholarship to create a policy framework that addresses and interrogates the global systems of patriarchal power which facilitate the military-industrial complex and perpetuate harms against women. It is also a framework which steps away from traditional forms of foreign policy which focus on military force and coercion, opting instead for policies which holistically address the human needs of the most vulnerable. Under a feminist foreign policy, the needs of women are central to all policy considerations and their engagement is required in all aspects of political and policy decision making.

Feminist Foreign Policy is achieving groundswell amongst certain governments, as indicated by the establishment of a Global Partner Network for Feminist Foreign Policy which was formalised at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris in June this year.  While gender equality and the rights of women are playing an increasingly significant role within international foreign policy, only 8 countries, including Sweden and Canada have formally adopted a feminist foreign policy. Notably, Australia, the UK and the US are yet to implement a formal Feminist Foreign Policy. 

Importantly, research has shown that when women are placed at the centre of foreign policy concerns, meaningful outcomes can be achieved which go beyond optics or gestures. In particular, the Council on Foreign Relations reports that peace agreements which engage civil society and women’s organisations are 64% less likely to fail.[1] Further, studies indicate that when women participate in peace processes, the agreement reached is likely to be better implemented and more durable.[2] Moreover, it has also been found that societies with higher levels of gender equality are less prone to conflict both between and within states.[3] Addressing the need for women engagement in peace talks in the Afghan context, a joint brief from UN Women and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission notes that: 

“….in a context where conflict recidivism remains high around the world, the inclusion of women in peace processes, and ceasefires negotiations in particular, may result in the long-term sustainability of the agreement—and of peace itself.”

Yet despite the evidence that women’s engagement in peace talks leads to better foreign policy outcomes, there were only four women in the Afghan government’s 21-person negotiation team at the Doha negotiations, and no women delegates representing the Taliban.

The following quote from an Afghan human rights defender at the Women and Peace seminar highlights the need for women to be meaningfully engaged in foreign policy as opposed to symbolic inclusion:

“I think what the major problem is, is giving a symbolic role to Afghan women. Even if it’s a ministerial position, whether it’s an ambassador position, whether you are holding a senior position, whether you are in the negotiation team … women are mostly given symbolic roles. It’s more about numbers, not about meaningful participation of women, it’s not about women making decisions, it’s not about women influencing the decisions.”

[Speaker’s identity withheld for security reasons]

Similarly, this Afghan commentator at the same seminar addresses a key concern of feminist foreign policy, namely that peace-negotiation frameworks should holistically incorporate women instead of being limited to the realm of military and combat, which is primarily the ambit of men:

“The belief in Afghanistan is that men fought, so they have to also bring peace. Because men have been leading the war in Afghanistan, they believe that they … have the responsibility to discuss peace in Afghanistan. I have witnessed different forums where, you know, men have said ‘why should we bring in women? What woman has to do [here]? We know the war, so we will know the peace also.”  

[Speaker’s identity withheld for security reasons]

Feminist foreign policy in the wake of the withdrawal

Canada and Sweden are two countries that fought in Afghanistan whilst having a feminist foreign policy framework in place. Sweden was the first country to introduce a feminist foreign policy back in 2014. Ann Bernes, Director and Special Advisor on Women, Peace and Security at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has said that Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is about moving gender equality from being an issue that competes amongst other priorities to being “the absolute core and DNA of… everything we do.”  The rights and resources of women in Afghanistan has been a key focus of Swedish feminist foreign policy, with Afghanistan being the largest recipient country of Swedish development assistance since 2013.

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, which was introduced in 2017, takes a holistic approach to the aims of feminist foreign policy, addressing not just issues of equality and rights recognition but also women’s engagement with and disruption of existing power structures. An example of a project instituted under Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy in Afghanistan was the Amplify Change: Supporting Women’s Rights project aimed at promoting women’s and girls’ rights by increasing awareness of existing rights under the law and by enhancing women’s and girls’ access to services and support.”                                              

Yet while both Canada and Sweden have established feminist foreign policy programming efforts during the occupation of Afghanistan, there has been little indication from either country about how these efforts will continue following the withdrawal of allied forces that has occurred this year. In a statement following their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Swedish government has said:

“Under the development assistance strategy, Sweden was due to contribute almost SEK 3.3 billion between 2021 and 2024. Following the Taliban takeover, Sweden will have to redirect parts of this assistance.”

This raises the question of how countries such as Sweden and Canada will continue to proceed with their feminist foreign policy approach following withdrawal. It also raises questions as to whether the current iterations of these country’s feminist policies can effectively address the needs of Afghan women. Importantly, a growing number of feminist foreign policy advocates argue that any form of military intervention is incommensurate with the goal of furthering women’s rights, given the violent patriarchal structures which are imbedded within the military.

Where to from here?

For many advocates, the withdrawal of troops provides an opportunity for the US and allied countries to instigate a total paradigm shift within their foreign policies that facilitates a non-military solution to the situation in Afghanistan through a commitment to peace building. For Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource & Organizing Centre (a member of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance), this involves adopting the principles of ‘feminist democracy’ whereby intersectionality and self-determination are pioneered, and economic and political power is redistributed.

In any case, the international community waits to see whether the withdrawal of the US and its NATO allies truly signifies the end of (albeit perfunctory) efforts to empower women in Afghanistan, or whether this juncture presents an opportunity to revise current foreign policies and adopt a substantive feminist framework.


[1] Desirée Nilsson (2012) Anchoring the Peace: Civil Society Actors in Peace Accords and Durable  Peace, International Interactions, 38:2, 243-266, DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2012.659139.

[2] Jana Krause, Werner Krause & Piia Bränfors (2018) Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations and the Durability of Peace, International Interactions, 44:6, 985-1016, DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2018.1492386.

[3] Hudson, Valerie M., Mary Caprioli, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Rose McDermott, and Chad F. Emmett. “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States.” Quarterly Journal: International Security, vol. 33. no. 3. (Winter 2008/09): 7-45.

Sarah Hellyer is completing a double degree in a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University.  She is currently undertaking the Monash Afghanistan Support Clinic set up by the Monash Faculty of Law’s Clinical Education Program to support the Ham diley Campaign. The Campaign is an initiative started byPhD students Azadah Raz Mohammad (Melbourne University) and Karin Frodé (Monash University, Castan Centre Affiliate) and CEO of the Capital Punishment Justice Project, Simone Abel, that seeks to support Afghans at risk by providing research and advocacy support, as well as by leveraging trusted contacts to make referrals for evacuation.

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