Afghanistan at a Crossroads: Securing Women’s Rights in the New Taliban Era

Afghanistan at a Crossroads: Securing Women’s Rights in the New Taliban Era

The international community fought the Taliban insurgency for twenty years with blood and money, investing trillions of dollars and losing thousands of soldiers. However, Afghanistan’s Taliban swept to power in Kabul on August 15, 2021.

Eighteen months after, Afghanistan is at a crossroads, facing poverty and unprecedented socioeconomic, political, governance, and security challenges. These challenges partially predate the takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021, but have worsened since then. Today, the Taliban struggles to govern with multiple sanctions imposed on the country and remains isolated internationally, primarily due to their gross neglect of human rights, especially women’s rights.

While the international community will not immediately recognize a regime trampling on human rights, it claims to remain committed to the Afghan people, their basic needs, and especially and increasingly women’s rights.

Afghan women have suffered the worst human rights abuse since the return of the Taliban. The policies and actions of the Afghan Emirate, barring women’s and girls’ access to secondary and post-secondary education, banning women’s employment, and restricting their movements, constitute a reprehensible process of dismantling women’s rights by the Taliban. The Taliban ban on female aid workers that followed suit put at risk millions of ordinary Afghans who depend on humanitarian aid delivery by women workers.

“There is no choice now but to talk to Afghanistan’s new rulers, as an Afghan woman rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee asserts.”

The brutal acts brought to the forefront the need for the international community to take a stand and consider strategic measures to secure Afghan women’s fundamental human rights. What options enable the international community to address such commitments?

Projects can be planned for funding by the international community to meet the obligations to protect women’s rights, primarily prioritizing the right to be educated and to earn an income, the two prerequisites for building up women as empowered individuals.  Strategic steps can be taken to follow examples in other countries with a Muslim-majority population.

BRAC, the world’s largest and highest-ranked non-governmental organization, has successfully delivered cost-effective, evidence-based programs in conflict-prone and post-disaster settings. BRAC’s programming played a significant role in the development of Bangladesh, educating women and girls in community-based schools supported by village mullahs and elders. The support of the religious leaders, with considerable influence in society, helped create a supportive environment and a robust platform for promoting girls’ education. Mullah’s appeal helped stimulate community support for girls’ education. Inspired by the mullahs, the community help ensure girls’ safe passage to and from school.  Mullahs also provided safe spaces for the schooling of girls. The BRAC community schools are often in a room at religious and community leaders’ homes that are safe havens for girls and women.  

Adoption in Afghanistan of a similar process influenced by religious and community leaders and with a proven record of accomplishments in Bangladesh (a Muslim-majority country) would help defeat the Taliban argument for banning female education to keep girls from insecure environments threatening their safety.

Similarly, the Taliban argument of safety concerns justifying women’s employment restrictions can be addressed if Afghan women are provided home-based income-earning opportunities. This instrument of earning an income within the safety of women’s homes has also been successfully implemented in Bangladesh. Home-based micro-enterprises as simple as catering lunches in offices, making bread and supplying to neighbourhood shops, making jams, jellies, and chutneys, and bottling these for sale by the male family members have generated a class of income-empowered women in Bangladesh.

Afghan women attend one of the almost three thousand literacy courses supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund for nearly seventy eight thousand women in 2007.
29/Apr/2008. Bamyan, Afghanistan. UN Photo/Sebastian Rich.

Afghan women would welcome opportunities for home-basedincome generation to help them add to the family income. This approach, enabling women to earn an income from the safety of their homes, successfully challenges the Taliban argument for restricting women’s employment on security grounds. It also builds self-confidence in women and helps them gain positions of dignity in the family and the community, effectively empowering them and promoting their rights.

Income-empowered women’s human rights are difficult to violate. Experience shows that the rights of income-empowered women are less
likely to be abused and violated worldwide.

However, no programmatic steps to protect women’s rights will be successful in Afghanistan without talking to and securing the cooperation of the de facto government in Kabul.  Whether or not the international community likes it, the reality is that the Taliban is the ruling power in Kabul. No matter how unpalatable, the international community must set aside its reluctance to engage with the Taliban. Addressing the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets for women’s development must be at the center of such engagements per the Call of the UN Global Network Canada for accelerating systemic change for women’s empowerment.  

A posture of no engagement with Kabul will not most certainly benefit Afghan women. On the contrary, total disengagement with the Taliban – a boycott – will isolate the Taliban regime further. Punitive measures, such as expanding or strengthening international sanctions, will ultimately hit innocent Afghan men and women whose basic needs are not met and whose rights are violated.

The concern is that the Taliban, boycotted by the international community, will likely return quickly to their reign of terror of the nineteen nineties. With no international oversight, gross violations of human rights will continue.

The Taliban continues to demonstrate an urge for recognition by the international community, which can be leveraged to extract Taliban commitments and actions to address women’s fundamental right to education and other pressing human rights issues. Engagement of the UN and the foreign governments with the Taliban will not immediately result in accepting the Taliban as a legitimate member of the international community. Any discussion on granting legitimacy to the Taliban administration should require the international community to establish benchmarks, in consultation with the Afghan Emirate, to monitor and determine progress in the human rights situation in the country.

Canada’s senior official for Afghanistan stationed in Doha has met with the Taliban pressing for commitments on opening women’s access to education, safe passage of Afghan refugees from the country, and fighting terrorism. The reports obtained by CBC indicate that little progress has been made in extracting commitments from the Taliban.  Yet, the international diplomatic community’s strategic engagement with the Taliban must continue to keep the Taliban regime somewhat under control.  

But as one Afghan woman rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee asserts: there is no choice now but to talk to Afghanistan’s new rulers.

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