Expert’s take: Gender equality is critical for Afghanistan’s future, long-term development, and sustained peace

Date: Tuesday, October 12, 2021

About the author

Alison Davidian, Deputy Representative for UN Women in Afghanistan. Photo: UN Women
Alison Davidian, Deputy Representative for UN Women in Afghanistan. Photo: UN Women/Zarina Faizi

Alison Davidian is the Deputy Representative for UN Women in Afghanistan. She’s previously worked as a Programme Specialist on Governance, Peace and Security with UN Women's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, managing the implementation of governance, peace and security programmes with a focus on preventing violent extremism, anti-trafficking, and access to justice.  From 2013-2017, she was a Policy Specialist in the Peace and Security Unit at UN Women where she managed the transitional justice portfolio and led the creation of the preventing violent extremism portfolio for UN Women. Before her time at UN Women, she worked for organizations including the International Center for Transitional Justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNDP in Somalia, and the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Australia.

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul and took the city, and we knew from that moment that life for women and girls in Afghanistan would change. Over the past month, we have been seeing day by day how the lives of women and girls have been impacted.

What we're hearing and seeing from Afghan women and girls is fear. Women remember the 1990s and what it was like to live under Taliban rule, and that fear has been exacerbated by the fact that the Taliban have not been clear about their position on women's rights. They have made broad statements that women's rights will be respected within the framework of Islam, but their actions have not inspired much confidence.

Since the Taliban took power, a cabinet has been appointed that has no women. Deputy Ministers were appointed and, again, no women were included. The Ministry for Women's Affairs has been abolished.

In some provinces, women are being told not to come to work or not to leave their homes without a male relative. Women protection centers are being attacked, and the people that work in them are being harassed. Safe houses for women human rights defenders, including activists and journalists, are at capacity.

The situation for women and girls in the country is bleak, but we continue to see women fighting for their rights and demanding equality. This hasn’t changed, and it will not change. Afghan women have been at the forefront of fighting for their rights for centuries. Afghan women had the right to vote in 1919, before the United States gave women the right to vote. In 1921, the first school for girls was established. The 2004 constitution enshrines gender equality. Throughout the decades, we see how Afghan women's advocacy has been seminal to the country moving forward, in both peace and development.

UN Women in Afghanistan is committed to staying and delivering for Afghan women and girls. Firstly, this means engaging in advocacy to ensure that women's rights are protected and promoted and that Afghan women are not just talked about, but that they are heard from directly. The eyes of the world are on Afghanistan now, but that won't last forever. It's a core part of the role of the international community to highlight the situation for women and girls, even when the cameras stop rolling. Advocacy also means ensuring that women's rights defenders have resources and protection—a critical marker of peace and security in any country.

Another key part of UN Women’s work is supporting women's civil society and the women's movement in Afghanistan. We know that women's organizations are engines for progress and accountability, but that women's rights organizations only receive less than one per cent of overseas development assistance [1]. We need to counter that trend by strategically and intentionally investing in women's civil society organizations.

UN Women is committed to ensuring that women have access to essential life-saving services, including responses to violence against women and girls. We know that Afghan women experience some of the highest rates of violence globally, and most of that violence happens in the home [2]. Nine out of 10 Afghan women experience at least one form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and that was before COVID-19 [3]. The pandemic has increased rates of violence against women across the globe, including in Afghanistan. UN Women will continue to work with partners to ensure that services are available to prevent and respond to violence against women.

Finally, UN Women is working with the humanitarian system in Afghanistan to ensure a gender-sensitive humanitarian response to Afghanistan's triple crises of conflict, COVID-19, and climate. That means ensuring the needs of the most impacted women and girls are met, that women can participate fully in the design and delivery of the humanitarian response, and that data-driven evidence and analysis are used to ensure the response is effective for women and girls. Working with women’s civil society organizations and women leaders, UN Women will make data-driven analysis available to national and international actors working in the country by releasing monthly survey results that look at the impact of the Taliban's rule on women and girls, effects on social and gender norms, and impacts for women's ability to access humanitarian services.

Afghanistan is confronting a crisis of the kinds of proportions that it may not have ever faced before. Half of the population is in need of some form of humanitarian assistance [4]. One third don't know where their next meal will come from [5]. There is a risk of a fourth COVID-19 wave because of the collapsing health infrastructure.

The only way for Afghanistan to navigate these challenges is to ensure that all of its people are on board, men and women, coming together to find a way through crisis and catastrophe. Women's full participation and leadership in public and political life is critical for Afghanistan’s future and long-term development, for sustaining peace, and for creating a vibrant economy that can bounce back from any crisis.