September 4, 2013 | Violence Against Women, War and Peace

Don’t Forget About Afghanistan

The struggle of its women and girls is far from over—and it's about to get rougher

Remember Afghanistan? Just a few years ago the world reacted with horror to constant reports of the Taliban's brutal repression of women there. Today the Taliban no longer runs the country, thousands of girls and women go to school or hold jobs—and the world's sympathy has shifted to Syria, the Congo, Somalia.

But American women "should not forget their Afghan sisters," says Manizha Naderi, executive director of the nonprofit Women for Afghan Women.  The struggle for women's rights is far from over—and even in danger of being lost entirely, she says. With the Taliban regaining strength and a deep-seated culture of conservatism still in place, women remain in danger from both domestic violence and attacks by religious extremists. The biggest concern is what will happen next year, after the U.S. withdraws its troops. Afghan women, says Naderi, "are at a turning point. Things will either get better and better—or go backwards."

Since 2001, Women for Afghan Women has been fighting for the rights, safety and self-determination of the country's women. The group runs shelters that provide refuge for women escaping forced marriage and spousal beatings; support centers for children whose mothers are in prison (most women in jail are there because they ran away from their husbands, and local custom dictates that their children live with them behind bars); and programs that teach women about their rights and provide legal support.  So far WAW has reached more than 150,000 Afghans.

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One of the group's most famous shelter residents: Bibi Aisha, the teen whose Taliban-connected in-laws cut off her nose and ears when she tried to escape years of abuse. After getting help in Afghanistan from WAW, the girl received additional medical care in the U.S. to restore her face. "She's not going back to Afghanistan," says Naderi. "She's on the hit list of the Taliban. She wouldn't survive one day."

Afghanistan's cultural conservatives are no big fans of WAW, either. Most of the group's shelter workers are used to getting threatening phone calls.  The callers most often want the shelter to return the runaway wife to her husband. The answer, says Naderi, is always "no."

Anyone who takes up Afghan’s women’s cause has their work cut out for them. With the U.S. presence waning, "the Taliban is taking over the country," says Naderi. "Parliament  is getting more and more conservative." Violence against women, she adds, is accepted in all situations.

And yet, Naderi remains optimistic for the future. What makes her so? "When I go on the streets in Afghanistan and see girls in their school uniforms walking for miles, so hungry to learn. When I visit our shelters and see women who are alive because of the work we do. There is so much potential there."

What can Americans do? "Stay in communication" with us, says Naderi. Put pressure on your congressmen and senators to champion women's rights in Afghanistan. Simply put, don't forget about these women. "The need is so great," says Naderi. "But there is hope."