Iguacu Blog

Behind the Green Eyes: the Fate of Afghan Women Refugees

Feb 03, 2016
Behind the Green Eyes: the Fate of Afghan Women Refugees

The iconic picture of the “Afghan girl” on the front cover of the June 1985 National Geographic is one of the most famous photographs from Afghanistan. 

The “Afghan Girl” | Photo Credit: Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

The piercing green eyes of Sharbat Gula embody the struggles faced by women in war-torn Afghanistan. For 33 years, until 2013, Afghanistan was the biggest source country of refugees. Today there are 2.6 million refugees originating from Afghanistan and almost 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many are women and girls.


Refugee life is hard for everyone but women refugees are especially vulnerable. They are disproportionately affected when they are forced to flee their homes. They are at risk at all stages of the journey, particularly when travelling alone. Women and girls face harassment from men along the way, from border authorities, from camp guards. They may be forced to sleep alongside male refugees while travelling, which can lead to abuse.

Women’s voices are often not taken into consideration in the formation and planning of refugee camps despite the fact that women form a significant part of the refugee population. In these camps, women may have to use the same sanitary facilities as men, placing them again at risk.

Herat, Afghanistan : Fifty year old Shirin works at weaving a carpet at a carpet and silk weaving centre located in the historic Herat Citadel. | Photo Credit: Graham Crouch / World Bank

As a refugee, the traditional community-based structures that protect women are often lost. Single women in particular face safety and reintegration challenges. Most are illiterate. They have to seek a means of livelihood but because of their gender, they may be socially restricted from certain types of employment. One-third of Afghan refugee women are widows, yet their specific needs are rarely addressed. Widows lose their place in society with the loss of their husbands. They have to care and provide for their children on their own. Emotional and psychological stress takes its toll on these women.

It is often more difficult for female refugees to seek employment, receive an education or vocational training or even obtain identity cards. There is little psychological and social support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.


Afghan women face a lack of protection under International Refugee Law. The 1951 Refugee Convention fails to enumerate gender as a ground for ‘persecution’. The grounds are limited to race, religion, nationality, political opinion and membership of a particular social group, which has led to the inclusion of women under the category of ‘a particular social group’. There is evidence that the lack of explicit protections makes it harder for women to be recognized as refugees and consequently to claim rights, access services, and get assistance.

Women face difficulties in fitting within the existing grounds of the Convention because their activities and experience may manifest themselves in different ways than male asylum applicants whose experiences have traditionally informed the development of refugee law. A woman who does not conform to gender roles or behaviors designated by religion, such as particular forms of dress or dietary regulations, may be persecuted. Political and religious beliefs can also be imputed to a woman by virtue of their male relatives, regardless of her actual beliefs.

Kandahar, Mirwais hospital, maternity unit. A pregnant woman waiting to deliver. | Photo Credit: Kate Holt/ ICRC

Moreover, persecution on the grounds of race and nationality may often take a gender-specific form. Men may be persecuted and face death but women, viewed as propagating the ethnic, national or racial identity, also face rape. It is claimed that there is no need to add an additional ground since the refugee definition, properly interpreted, covers gender-related claims. This perpetuates the policy of ad hoc recognition of women as refugees, without consistency and uniformity, which cannot adequately ensure that women are granted the appropriate level of protection during status determination procedures.

Ultimately, without a clear consensus at the international level, protections afforded to female refugees from Afghanistan will remain weak. Refugees already face extreme hardship. Women refugees deserve not to face more because of their gender.

Written by Roopa Matthews.

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