Since August 2021, Afghan women and girls have been grappling with increasingly restrictive decrees limiting their participation in all aspects of social, economic, and political life. These have confined millions of women to their home, restricting their important contributions to society.

Their already dire situation has been compounded in recent months by humanitarian crises. First, devastating earthquakes rocked western Afghanistan in October 2023. Then, since November 2023, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been forced to return after a decree by the Government of Pakistan on undocumented migrants went into effect. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) data, an estimated 80 per cent of those affected are women and children.

A young Afghan girl waits for her family to receive assistance at the Spin Boldak border crossing. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi.

To showcase the myriad struggles and resilience of Afghan women, IOM and UN Women are organizing two joint photo exhibitions, at the United Nations Office in Geneva from 8 to 22 March and at United Nations Headquarters in New York from 11 to 22 March 2024, during the first week of the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, an annual global meeting of Member States, gender equality champions, and experts.

This photo essay includes a selection of the anonymized photographs* and stories from this exhibition. The names and other details of women and girls featured have been changed for their protection.

Afghan families arrive from Pakistan with their belongings at the Spin Boldak border crossing in Kandahar. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi.

Many Afghans who left shortly after August 2021 fled to neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan. However, in recent months, the conditions for Afghans living in Pakistan have become increasingly difficult, forcing many to return to an unknown fate back home in Afghanistan.

Habiba is one of them.

A 51-year-old Afghan woman who lost her husband in a suicide attack. She has no other family members and now lives with a neighbour. Photo: UN Women/Sayed Habib Bidell.

“I lived in Pakistan for two years”, says Habiba. “We faced lots of problems there. We couldn’t take one step out of the house to go to the bazaar. Because we didn’t have any documents or visas, my children couldn’t go to school in Pakistan. 

“We packed all our stuff, we prayed, and it was late at night when we left the house. Due to the rush of cars and people, we spent all night at the border. We spent a cold night because we didn’t have enough warm clothing. Then, in the early morning, we started the drive back to Afghanistan. …

“We pray that my children wouldn’t starve and face any difficulties. We wish to have a better life here. … I ask the international community to stand with us and help Afghan people, especially returnees.”

Afghan returnees at a temporary shelter before heading to the IOM Transit Centre in Kandahar. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi.

Returnees must stay in temporary shelters before heading to the IOM Transit Centre, or their hometowns.

Salma, a mother of six, recently returned from Pakistan.

This young Afghan woman was among the thousands who have been forced to leave Pakistan. Photo: IOM/Mina Nazari.

“One day, it all came crashing down around us”, says Salma. “The government announced that they would [forcibly return] all immigrants without proper documentation, and we were among those targeted. We went there seeking a better life, and now we were being punished for it. 

“I was filled with worry and anxiety as we packed up the few belongings we had and prepared to leave the only home our children had ever known. Where would we go? What would happen to us? Would we ever find a place to call home again? But even amid all this uncertainty, I knew that I had to stay strong for my children. They looked up at me, and I couldn’t let them see how scared and helpless I really felt. So, I put on a brave face, and told them that everything would be okay. …

“We left Pakistan with nothing more than the clothes on our backs and a suitcase full of dreams.”

Afghan returnees wait at the IOM Transit Centre in Kandahar to register for assistance. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi.

The following selection of quotes and randomly paired photographs are featured in the exhibition.

Photo: IOM/Mina Nazari

As a single mother, I faced insults and discrimination crossing the border with my two daughters. I'm worried about our uncertain future and the looming risk of homelessness.

Photo: UN Women/Sayed Habib Bidell.

I am making the most of my current [situation]. I’ve been teaching 12 neighbourhood children who, due to poverty or other reasons, couldn’t go to school. We hold daily one-hour classes in one of the rooms in our house.

Photo: IOM/Marjan Wafa

I want to raise the voices of these innocent women to the international community, so that it will no longer just monitor and react, but act instead – act because we do not get anything from reaction!

Photo: IOM/Marjan Wafa

Our future holds a lot of uncertainty.

These stories and images capture the hardships that so many Afghan women are experiencing, but they also bring hope in their remarkable strength and resilience, as they find their own unique ways to resist.


* None of the photographs featured here correspond to the stories or names mentioned, to protect the identities of the women and girls.


Media contacts:

IOM Afghanistan: Avand Azeez Agha -

UN Women: Jen Ross -