The Challenge of Becoming Invisible: Understanding Women’s Security in Kabul

Although the overthrow of the Taliban opened up new opportunities for women, it did not give rise to the “women’s liberation” many were expecting. Currently, there are growing concerns about an “apparent backlash against the empowerment of women and their participation in public life.” The current situation in Afghanistan demonstrates that while conflict and its aftermath can shake up gender roles, rapid social change can also provoke “a retreat to conservative notions of masculinity and femininity.”

Efforts to empower women are increasingly perceived as Western interference, as interventions are largely implemented through top-down strategies that overlook the agency of Afghan women. These women are often depicted as helpless victims by the very people that wish to help them. This perception denies the capacity of Afghan women to be agents of change and often excludes them from the very decision-making processes designed to help them, reinforcing the perception that the impetus for initiatives targeting women is exogenous.

One area of palpable backslide is women’s mobility in public. Afghan society clearly delineates the public sphere as a male-dominated space. This division is rooted in the belief that women are the “keepers of the family honor” and should therefore be kept at home. Many threats to women’s safety in public spaces, notably verbal and physical harassment, are condoned by society, as they reinforce norms about women and their use of space. Consequently, all public space is threatening to Afghan women. “Space which causes fear restricts movement and thus the community’s use of space,” which can lead to social exclusion.


What is a Women’s Safety Audit?

The Women’s Safety Audit (WSA) is a “participatory tool that is used for collecting and assessing information about perceptions of safety in public spaces.” It was first developed by Toronto’s Metro Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children in 1989. Since then, it has been adapted and implemented in communities in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Oceania. Local NGOs and international organizations alike have put the tool to use; UN-HABITAT’s Safer Cities Programme has utilized the WSA as a tool since 1995.

Women’s Safety Audits (WSAs) are typically conducted by small groups of women (and sometimes men) that organize a walk through a designated area in their neighborhood, noting observations along the way. Participants share their findings and determine recommendations for improving the safety and security of the audited public space. The methodology is often adapted to the local context, as was the case for this audit, which used a survey methodology to ensure adequate representation of the diverse profiles represented amongst active Kabul women.