Women’s rights must be the litmus test for our collective engagement with the Taliban

As the Taliban seeks to establish a new normal, the international community must be unified and clear on what is needed

Mohammad Naciri
Sunday 05 September 2021 11:28 BST
Women gather to demand their rights under the Taliban rule during a protest in Kabul
Women gather to demand their rights under the Taliban rule during a protest in Kabul (Reuters)

As we debate our failures of the past and search for clues on the future, there is an urgent issue that we must reckon with. How will we, as an international community, seek to secure and safeguard women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Afghan women have spent 20 years reclaiming the public space they were so brutally denied from 1996 to 2001 under Taliban rule. They have led provinces and cities, joined the police force, competed in the Olympics, and become engineers, doctors and diplomats, often defying gender stereotypes. They have advocated for social change, human rights and peace, demanding to be listened to.

They have done this with the encouragement, funding and support of the United Nations, including my organisation – UN Women – as well as foreign development partners, and international civil society. In doing this, they have put their lives on the line to help build a new country, as demonstrated by the assassinations of hundreds of women’s human rights defenders and high-profile female leaders between 2001 and today.

Now, these same women face, at best, an uncertain future – either in exile or confined to their homes – or in the grimmest of scenarios, no real future at all.

The decisions that are made in the coming days on how the international community will engage with the Taliban will have long term implications. Some states are calling for the recognition of the Taliban, the release of frozen assets and the lifting of sanctions. Others are debating the merits of isolationism.

The Taliban’s position, in turn, is equally unclear – whether they will seek international legitimacy, turn to their established friends for support or turn inward. Over the past week, they have emphasised that they are different from the Taliban of 20 years ago. Talks on government formation have included commitments to establishing an “inclusive government”, suggesting a possible interest in securing international legitimacy.

However, if we look beyond the statements, there is cause for alarm. The Taliban have made no mention of women as part of any governance structure and on Tuesday, a Taliban spokesperson recommended women to stay at home, for their own protection.

Women’s voices have been banned from radio, and they are disappearing from the media landscape. Reports are flooding in from across the country of girls being forced to marry, of women being prevented from working, with their jobs offered to male family members and of women’s safe spaces being looted and destroyed. Over the weekend, the Taliban broke up a demonstration by dozens of women in Kabul – with the protesters saying they were targeted with tear gas.

The entire infrastructure of support for women who have experienced violence has collapsed overnight, from the courts and the government-run Family Response Units to shelters and safe houses.

As the Taliban seeks to establish a new normal, the international community must be unified and clear on what our common lines for engagement are. The first must be participation. Women and girls must be able to go to school, access higher education and learn the skills that will equip them for a future they choose, and the expertise needed to help the country progress. While the Taliban have said that women and girls can remain in education if schools are segregated by gender, this will not be possible in most areas of the country due to shortages in buildings, teachers and equipment.

The second must be guaranteed access to healthcare. If women can only see female doctors, and can only leave their houses with male chaperones, they will struggle to access the healthcare they need.

Thirdly, women must be allowed to work in any field of their choosing and participate fully in public life, including in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. If we are to deliver on the acute humanitarian needs in the country, in order to reach women, we will need women to be front line workers. And finally, services to prevent and respond to violence against women must be bolstered.

These basic assurances must make up our collective demands in exchange for remaining engaged in Afghanistan.

Mohammad Naciri is the UN Women regional director for Asia Pacific

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