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How the International Community Can Protect Afghan Women and Girls

Published in: Just Security

Now that evacuations from Kabul’s airport have ended and the last foreign troops have gone, the focus shifts to the long-term human rights crisis in Afghanistan. The issue is what life will be like in Afghanistan—especially for women and girls—and what influence the international community will have.

In an August 24 statement the G7 said:

“We will work together, and with our allies and regional countries, through the UN, G20 and more widely, to bring the international community together to address the critical questions facing Afghanistan.… [T]he Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights those of women, girls and minorities and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan. The legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes ….”

This statement begs questions about what leverage the international community has, how it will use that leverage, how much cooperation there will be, what issues it will prioritize, and, of course, how susceptible the Taliban will be to pressure.

There is reason to worry that government donors will exhaust any leverage they have on conditions related to counterterrorism. But this is a key moment to consider what conditions and mechanisms could be most effective in trying to protect the rights of women and girls.

The evacuation crisis may have delayed discussion by involved governments about these next steps. But Afghans do not have the luxury of time; a new crisis is rapidly unfolding, as most foreign aid to Afghanistan has been blocked. Because about 80 percent of the Afghan government’s budget comes from donors, the consequences were immediate—in the form of higher food prices, crowds outside banks, and warnings of an impending food shortage and collapse of the healthcare system. Others, such as Nicholas Miller and Doug Rutzen and Adam Smith, have written about the urgent need to keep humanitarian aid and financial assistance flowing, and options to combine continued assistance with targeted sanctions and conditions.

What Leverage Does the International Community Have?

Power dynamics dramatically shifted as the Taliban gained power and withdrawing countries found themselves seeking Taliban cooperation to evacuate their citizens and Afghan partners. But donors, chief among them the United States, still hold some cards. The Taliban continues to engage in human rights abuses, but their statements hint at a desire for legitimacy and assistance, and an understanding that how they treat women could be a key factor.

At their initial August 17 news conference, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said, “Our sisters, our men have the same rights; they will be able to benefit from their rights … of course within the frameworks that we have.” Evidence continues to emerge that the Taliban are violating the rights of women. But their desire to be seen as reformed may create opportunities for donors to influence the Taliban’s actions.

That will be tricky. Donors need to simultaneously exert leverage on the Taliban, including toward protecting women’s rights, while avoiding harming the Afghan people, especially women and girls, by cutting off humanitarian assistance and funding for essential services like health care and education. Another issue is whether the international community will demonstrate the cooperation and political will necessary for this complex task.

The Taliban are obliged under international law to fully respect women’s rights. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2003. The Taliban inherits Afghanistan’s obligations under that convention, including to “pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women.”

Donors should identify the leverage they have—through targeted sanctions, aid, political pressure, and other means—and use it to press for concrete commitments on the rights of women that will be meaningful to women and girls and measurable through monitoring. They should not lose track of the Taliban’s obligation to ensure full gender equality and the international community’s duty to continue to press for that.

Deciding on the proper response first requires an understanding of the situation in the country. This won’t be easy given the Taliban’s secrecy and the limits likely to be placed on nongovernmental organizations, but it’s crucial. The following is a partial list of areas the international community should focus on as it seeks to set criteria against which to respond to the Taliban treatment of women and girls.

Access to Education

In recent years, in areas under their control, Taliban policies varied but often included permitting girls to attend school only up to the sixth grade. Even when local Taliban policy permitted at least some girls to study, there have sometimes been efforts to discourage girls and women from attending.

Since gaining control of the country, the Taliban have said they support education for girls and women. At the initial news conference, Mujahid said, “They can have activities in different sectors and different areas on the basis of our rules and regulations: educational, health and other areas.” Another spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, on August 23 tweeted a clip of girls entering a school, writing, “Back to School in a New Afghanistan.”

The status of girls’ access to secondary education, which the Taliban have typically not permitted in recent years in areas under their control, is unclear. On August 29, the acting minister of higher education announced that girls and women may participate in higher education but may not study with boys and men. The Taliban previously issued a similar order to universities in the western city of Herat, adding that female students could only receive instruction from female or “virtuous” elderly male professors.

A lack of female teachers, especially in higher education, is likely to mean that such rules amount to a de facto denial of access to education for many girls and women. Afghan government statistics from 2019 indicate that across the country’s 166 universities, 27 percent of students were female, but only 14 percent of professors. Even in government teacher training institutions, only about 13 percent of the teachers were women that year although 57 percent of the students were women.

Donors should try make every effort to hold the Taliban to their promises on education for women and girls. They should seek commitments from the Taliban to fully respect the right of girls and women to education, and should ensure that there is monitoring of:

  • The overall number of children and young adults attending school, and graduating from school, at the primary, secondary, and higher education levels; and
  • The proportion of these students who are girls and women, at each level, disaggregated at least by province and ideally by district.

Access to Employment

“They are going to be working with us, shoulder to shoulder with us,” Zabihullah Mujahid said of women on August 17. But on August 24, he urged women to stay home from work, citing security concerns related to misconduct by the Taliban’s own forces. This followed incidents of the Taliban forcing women out of work in banks and the media.

Donors should reiterate that women have a right, in accordance with Afghanistan’s international human rights obligations, to engage in any occupation, and push for the Taliban to respect that right. If the Taliban do not recognize women’s full right to work, donors should monitor what restrictions women are facing, on paper and in practice. This should include whether women are being able to work not just as teachers and healthcare workers but also in occupations such as government, humanitarian assistance, social services, law enforcement, military, and the media.

Violence Against Women and Girls

Afghan women’s rights activists fought hard over the last 20 years for systems to respond to and protect women and girls from gender-based violence. They won important gains, including the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the creation of specialized courts and prosecution units. Donors supported these systems and services for survivors.

While the system was poorly implemented, it still represented a fundamental change. That a woman or girl could flee violence and find safety and help, go to the police, testify in court, see her attacker punished, and start a new life with help from social services and lawyers helped to empower not just women and girls who used this system, but also others who knew the system existed.

A crucial question is what will happen to this hard-won system now, under Taliban control. It seems likely to be entirely disregarded and dismantled. Donors should press for, and monitor, detailed commitments from the Taliban about preventing forced and child marriage, and ensuring access to assistance and justice for women and girls facing violence in the home.

Access to Health Care

When they were in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned women from most work outside the home but made exceptions for health care. These exceptions did not, however, ensure full access to health care for women. Restrictions on women’s freedom of movement—banning women from leaving their home unless chaperoned by a male family member—limited the ability of women to reach health facilities, and the ability of female healthcare professionals to work. Requirements that women could see only female health workers created further barriers, especially as the Taliban’s ban on most education for women limited the availability of female workers. In this area, as in education, donors should look beyond Taliban statements and seek to track:

  • How many health facilities—hospitals and clinics—are actually functioning;
  • How many patients are these facilities seeing, disaggregated by gender; and
  • How many healthcare workers are present and working in these facilities, disaggregated by occupation and gender.

Most Important—How To Monitor?

The most important challenge is how—and whether—the international community will have access to detailed and reliable information about what is happening on women’s rights in Afghanistan. Taking the Taliban’s word for it is not an option. There is also significant variety in Taliban practices regarding women’s rights from one area to another—so monitoring in as many areas as possible will be essential.

Concerned governments should push hard for all systems available for human rights monitoring to be able to function and work freely—the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Afghan human rights groups, and international nongovernmental organizations. There is a particularly important role for the United Nations, and the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is up for renewal in September. The UNAMA mission, established by the Security Council in 2002, already has a broad mandate to monitor human rights, support the rule of law, protect women’s rights, and encourage national reconciliation. The mission has faced challenges in recent years due to insecurity in Afghanistan and the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has a unique role and a track record of detailed and careful documentation of rights abuses, including those committed against women and girls. Donors should ensure that monitoring the rights of women and girls is a key part of UNAMA’s role moving forward, and that concessions the Taliban seeks from the international community are linked at least in part to UN findings on how they are treating women and girls.

Agreeing on indicators, and monitoring and reporting could play a key role in reducing Taliban abuses against women and girls that make a real difference in their day-to-day lives. But donors will also need to be ready to push back hard when violations continue to occur. The Taliban needs to understand that no entity that treats women as the Taliban did in 2001 can be seen as legitimate.

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