Moving Mountains:The Vital Role of Afghan Women in Forging a Shared Future

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Since the Taliban takeover in 2021, Afghanistan has faced a grim confluence of crises—a failing economy, widespread poverty and famine, rampant human rights abuses, and a total erasure of the rights of women and girls. Devastating earthquakes and the deportation of Afghans from Pakistan have further compounded the challenges facing the country. The Taliban appear to be indifferent to international sanctions or any of the usual levers of diplomacy and have not heeded global calls to ease restrictions on women and girls. As the situation intensifies, it has become harder to imagine how things will improve, especially for those most impacted.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the international community has taken steps to address the situation. In December 2023, the United Nations Security Council adopted a new resolution (UNSCR 2721) on Afghanistan that aims to bring coherence to wide-ranging political, humanitarian, and development activities. Importantly, the Resolution calls for the appointment of a United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan to uphold recommendations from an independent assessment, “particularly regarding gender and human rights.” Not surprisingly, the Taliban have not accepted the report findings or recommendations. Additionally, Afghan women continue to be marginalized from decision-making roles and opportunities to meaningfully influence political processes focused on the future of the country.

To further complicate matters, Afghans struggle to form a unified vision for the future of the country. While many courageous Afghan women continue to speak out against Taliban oppression, consensus on the way forward remains out of reach. Decades of war and instability have created deep divisions in Afghan society, making it difficult for the Afghan women’s movement to mobilize a coordinated, strategic response and articulate a cohesive platform for advocacy.

To support better coordination and advocacy, this study engaged Afghan women to identify priority actions for peace and stability in the country. The goal of the project was to support Afghan women in articulating a strong and unified voice in preparation for the day when peace negotiations are once again possible. While it is hard to imagine a future in which the Taliban will consider progressive reforms or is no longer in power, we believe it is important to start planning for that day now to ensure diverse perspectives are considered and progress toward meaningful reform can be made over time. Afghan women must be central to any national dialogue and future peace processes.

The goal of the project was to support Afghan women in articulating a strong and unified voice in preparation for the day when peace negotiations are once again possible.

Drawing on insights from survey findings, as well as interviews and a group discussion with Afghan women leaders, this report highlights the vital perspectives of Afghan women in order to inform efforts aimed at forging a peaceful, inclusive, and shared future among Afghanistan’s diverse communities. The women who participated in this project represent a variety of geographical regions, ethnicities, professions, and political beliefs. Some are living in exile, and others remain in Afghanistan. Despite differences, participants shared many common goals and a conviction that, while international support was vital for any substantive change, only Afghans can lead the way out of the current crisis, and Afghan women are critical to creating an inclusive, sustainable solution.

The title of this report was inspired by a powerful Afghan proverb: “If men are mountains, then women are the movers.” Despite perceptions that the situation in Afghanistan is at a standstill, this proverb reminds us of the strength of women to influence and change even the most difficult situations. We hope findings from this study will serve as a resource for more coordinated and effective action that is aligned with the priorities of those most impacted by the Taliban’s brutal takeover of the country.


  • Current international pressures and sanctions are inadequate and cannot be effective unless the international community takes a stronger and more coordinated position.
  • The international community has contributed to Afghanistan’s instability and isolation and should play a role in restoring peace and security. While it is the responsibility of Afghans to restructure Afghanistan’s government and restore women’s rights, they need facilitation and political support from the international community to do so.
  • Afghanistan needs to adopt more equitable, inclusive power-sharing norms and that Afghan women must play a central role in all aspects of social, economic, and political life.
  • Establishing social rights (a subset of human rights) is critically important for building a government that could sustain lasting peace in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia is uniquely extreme—to restore order and cultivate lasting peace, the country should look back to previous, more progressive interpretations of Sharia.
  • The country could benefit from a national healing process to help Afghans repair divisions within the country and move on from historic wrongs, including the role of the international community in isolating and destabilizing Afghanistan over many decades.


Our research uncovered many areas of commonality among otherwise divided Afghan women activists and revealed a rough consensus as to what needs to be in place for lasting peace in Afghanistan. We offer the following recommendations based on our findings and previous research in this arena:

  1. Revoke all bans on girls’ and women’s social rights and participation. Restoring women’s ability to attend school, work outside the home, receive health care, and move about freely should be a prerequisite for any meaningful national dialogue or international engagement with the Taliban.
  2. Include women in decision-making. Prioritize women’s meaningful inclusion and participation in all of Afghanistan’s humanitarian and longer-term economic recovery activities.
  3. Hold democratic elections. If held under the auspices of the international community, free and fair elections would be a fundamental step toward Afghanistan establishing an inclusive and representative government.
  4. Conduct a census. With the support of the international community, Afghanistan should conduct a national population census to help inform how they share power and resources in the future.
  5. Decentralize power. Afghans must define a model of inclusiveness that is responsive to the full range of majority and minority concerns at the national and local levels and that more constructively reflects long-standing differences among ethnic groups and geographic regions.
  6. Create a reconciliation plan. Afghans need to develop a long-term reconciliation plan that addresses real and perceived historical grievances. They must set a timeframe for acknowledging past grievances and work toward a shared future that includes more realistic roles for the international community and neighboring regions.


  • Palwasha Hassan, Senior Fellow, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security


I thank the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security for bringing me to D.C. as a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and the excellent GIWPS research team for providing the resources and support necessary to undertake this project. I would also like to thank the following individuals for their important contributions: Susie Frank for editorial support; Horia Mosadiq, Nora El Zakom, and Lily Erikson for technical support; and last but not least, GIWPS Executive Director Ambassador Melanne Verveer, whose leadership inspired me every step of the way.