Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Helping Afghan women’s rights defenders fleeing the Taliban

Aug 28, 2023 | Foreign Policy, Commentary, Leadership, Opinion, Gender, International, Refugee and migrant women, Activism, Feature

Written by Susan Hutchinson

Two years ago the last Australian flights departed Kabul International Airport. The photos of the first planes flying out of Kabul were full of men. There were very few women or children in sight. It was mostly men who’d worked with the security forces. Knowing Afghan women’s rights defenders were going to be left behind to suffer horrendous fate at the hands of the Taliban, I set about compiling a list of individuals who needed to be let onto the Australian planes out of the country.

George W. Bush may have declared that they had liberated the women of Afghanistan, but women from Afghanistan and around the world fought incredibly hard to be recognised in security and government processes over the past 20 years. The Taliban had made public announcements that they would respect women’s rights in the confines of Sharia, but well versed observers weren’t fooled. As northern cities fell, talibs had been publicly whipping and beheading prominent women from the community.

Civil society in Australia had developed strong connections with women’s civil society in Afghanistan over the past two decades. The Australian Council for International Development had an entire working group of aid and development NGOs with programs in the country. The Annual Civil Society Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security often included discussions on the implementation of Australia’s National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security in Afghanistan. Many members of the Australian Civil Society Coalition for Women, Peace and Security had networks and partners in Afghanistan. Names for my list came from these groups and more.

Relevant ministerial offices made it clear only people who were issued with Australian visas would be admitted onto Australian evacuation flights. Emergency evacuation visas could be issued upon invitation by the Minister. The Minister’s office needed to see people had a strong connection to Australia, and an explanation of why they were in uniquely threatening situation. This information had to be provided to the right people, at the right time, as concisely as possible. We sent it to ministers, shadow ministers and relevant portfolio holders in the Greens, as well as people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Since the fall of Kabul, we have helped around 300 Afghan women’s rights defenders to final destinations of safety. Early on, our list contained over a hundred names. It now contains 430 names.

At various points in time since the 15thof August 2021, 243 of those people were issued with emergency evacuation visas (including an additional group of widows and orphans who were issued visas earlier this year). But less than twenty of the people on our list made it onto the Australian planes out of Kabul. So, our effort to get the women’s rights defenders of Afghanistan to safety has been a long and slow process largely taking place after the 26th of August when many consider Australia’s efforts complete.


Susan writes: "Since the fall of Kabul, we have helped around 300 Afghan women’s rights defenders to final destinations of safety." These Afghan women holding placard protesting outside at UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) demanding to be given refugee status in India or other country. Picture: Shutterstock

Susan writes that since the fall of Kabul, she and her colleagues have helped around 300 Afghan women’s rights defenders to final destinations of safety. In this photo, Afghan women hold  placards protesting outside at UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) demanding to be given refugee status in India or other country. Picture: Shutterstock


Not all of those people came to Australia. Often, we could not get a response quickly enough from the Australian government for extremely high-risk individuals, even those with incredibly close personal and professional ties to Australia, so we ended up taking them to other countries. They have settled in Spain, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Ireland, Greece and other places.

Even when women were issued visas, international security forces at the airport were requiring people produce passports to be given access to the airport. In Afghanistan, it is common for women to not have passports. For many years, women were included on their husbands’ passport. Then the law required their husband’s permission in order to attain a passport.

Even when Afghan women have paid employment, they are overwhelmingly the ones with caring responsibilities for young children and elderly family members. This is the case even if they are employed in high level jobs in international organisations. The conditions outside the airport were not such that would allow access for such women, their small children and aged parents.

So, most of our evacuations have been undertaken overland. We undertake unique risk assessments for each evacuation. But visas for Iran and Pakistan are prohibitively expensive, police brutality is rife and discrimination against Afghans is profound. Money from a philanthropic donor that covered food and rent assistance ran out when visas to final destinations of safety took months longer to process than expected. Many of the families on the list are highly skilled and would make valuable contributors to Australia as skilled migrants. Even though we have access to an expedited skilled migrant scheme, those visas cost money that our organisation, and these families just don’t have.

For two years, the Australian Government has stated that women, human rights defenders, ethnic minorities, and those with ties to Australia will be prioritised in visa processing. But once the return of the Taliban had left the news, the issuing of visas slowed drastically.

Home Affairs’ hugely overloaded visa processing system has no mechanism to shift applications based on these priorities.

We were once able to provide advice to Ministers and senior bureaucrats who would influence processing decisions. But the Minister for Women, the Ambassador for Gender Equality and the Minister for Immigration are no longer affecting visa processing outcomes for these women’s rights defenders. Where local Members of Parliament were once able to get departmental action on these issues, they too are now often struggling to get any movement.

This is not good enough. The United Nations has described what the Taliban has done in Afghanistan as a Gender Apartheid. Women are starving and dying in Afghanistan. Delays in Australia’s visa processing have cost lives. Australia has a moral and policy obligation to provide humanitarian protection to the Afghan women’s rights defenders now.

  • Please note: Picture at top is a stock photo 
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Susan Hutchinson is the Executive Director of Azadi-e Zan, a new NGO helping Afghan women’s rights defenders since the fall of Kabul. She lives with a chronic disabling illness. Before becoming ill she was the Civil-Military Advisor for the Australian Council for International Development. Susan continues to focus her energy on women’s experiences of conflict and is currently undertaking a PhD on women, peace and security at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School.

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