Afghan women leaders speak at the UN: “Give us a seat at the table.”
On 15 August 2021, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. The lives of women and girls across the country have been severely impacted since the takeover. Girls are banned from attending secondary school, women are unable to continue work, and violence against women is on the rise.
On 21 October 2021, UN Women and partners facilitated the participation of a delegation of Afghan women to speak at a series of events and high-level meetings at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on the sidelines of the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security. The delegation included parliamentarians, women’s rights advocates, journalists, civil society leaders, and researchers.
“Thank you for listening to the women of Afghanistan—women that are talked about a lot but listened to very little,” said Fawzia Koofi, a former Republic Peace Negotiator and first woman Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament, at the side event, “A new chapter in Afghanistan: Ensuring international cooperation in support of Afghan women and girls”. The event was co-sponsored by the United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations, the Permanent Mission of Canada, the Permanent Mission of the State of Qatar to the United Nations, UN Women, and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
“A year ago, I was dreaming that one day I would come to this beautiful, prestigious building and speak as President of Afghanistan,” continued Koofi. “With me, millions of girls and women in Afghanistan had this dream that now they think will never come true.”
Joining Koofi, Naheed Farid, Asila Wardak, Mariam Safi, Anisa Shaheed, and Sofia Ramyar also participated in a series of conversations leading up to and following the Security Council Open Debate, briefing on the country’s current human rights situation and calling for women’s full and equal participation in humanitarian assistance, peace efforts, and governance. They also presented practical policy recommendations on the most pressing issues facing the country, outlining what the international community needs to do now to uphold the full spectrum of women’s human rights in Afghanistan.
“As we are speaking right now, there is no human rights monitoring mechanism on the ground to say what is going on. That’s why this delegation is here today,” said Mariam Safi, an researcher and head of an Afghan think tank, at a noon media briefing on 20 October 2021.
“Action needs to be taken to ensure that the de facto authorities in Kabul develop an inclusive and fully representative governance body that represents the diversity of Afghan society,” said Naheed Farid, a parliamentarian and human rights advocate who was elected at the age of 27, making her one of the youngest women in history to serve in parliament. “For this to happen, Afghans need the support of the international community, utilizing its leverage, to ensure that an inclusive government, the aspiration of its people, is fully realised.”
“To the Member States present in this room today, I urge you to mobilize to reverse the reversals on women’s rights and to stop the human rights violations facing women and girls in Afghanistan,” said UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous.
Echoing the calls for action from the international community, Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon of the United Kingdom Mission stated at the 21 October side event that, “We need to work urgently not just to protect women and girls in Afghanistan, but to strengthen their rights in Afghanistan, and, ultimately, with the Taliban, to hold them to account on their words and for their actions…. Women and girls across Afghanistan deserve equality. They have the right to live safely in security and with dignity.”
The Afghan women’s delegation stressed their right to be part of the conversations and decisions on women, peace, and security. “Please do not talk about me in these discussions,” said Asila Wardak, a prominent women’s rights and civil society activist, in her closing remarks on 21 October 2021.
“Create spaces for me and other Afghan women leaders to talk directly with the Taliban. This is how you meaningfully include women in peace and security processes, as well as in humanitarian assistance projects. Give us a seat at the table. Do not put us in the corridor.”
Voices of Afghan Women
Naheed Farid is an Afghan parliamentarian and human rights advocate. At age 27, she became one of the youngest elected members of the Parliament in 2010.
“Today marks the 34th day that Afghan girls are banned from attending secondary school.”
“Economic collapse is obvious, and it is a human rights issue because, if it happens, it will collapse on the shoulders of the women of Afghanistan. ”
“Afghanistan is a humanitarian disaster that needs immediate and concrete action by the international community. We want a trusted corridor to be established immediately, where civil society and humanitarian actors can help the people in need. The Taliban… must set up an inclusive government, not all-male, all-Taliban cabinet…If women are not part of decision-making processes, if they are not part of the political space, all the achievements we made would vanish.” Read her full story ►
Fawzia Koofi is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee (2020), an accomplished author, and internationally known advocate for the rights of women, children, minorities, and democracy. She was the first woman in the Afghan Parliament to serve as Second Deputy Speaker and to head the Parliament’s Women Affairs Commission. She was appointed as one of the 21 members on the Republic’s former negotiation team in the Intra-Afghan talks.
“As I speak here today to you, in my country, the women and men who dedicated their lives to building peace, to promoting the rule of law and justice and equality, people who put their own lives [at risk] to protect and serve our communities—from civil society, peacebuilders, to judges, journalists, musicians, security officers…are in hiding. Some are being hunted, others have already been hunted.”
“For years, why did the international community refuse our request for a multi-stakeholder peace process? And why was more time not given to the peace process to result what we wanted? Our conflict is multidimensional and peace efforts could take longer.”
“The Taliban asks you for patience, but you as the international community must seek concrete actions from them too.”
Mariam Safi is a researcher and leads the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS), an independent and multidisciplinary policy-oriented research institute.
“The health of a nation is determined by the status of its women. It is critical for the international community to come onto the same page and use the leverages at their disposal, […] to set clear benchmarks for the Taliban and for their engagement with the Taliban.”
“[The international community should also coordinate] the humanitarian response… If we don’t do this, then there is no seeing where the economic support, where the humanitarian assistance is being spent on, what it is feeding, and whether it is getting into the hands of those that need it the most.”
“Afghan women want access to education, they want to return to their jobs. They don’t want handouts. Women want to be part of the Afghan society, they do not want to be treated as second class citizens. Respect for women’s rights is fundamentally important. Afghan women are also saying, humanitarian response is very important, but let’s not sacrifice the future of women’s rights. Human rights and humanitarian response should go hand in hand.”
“When Kabul fell, for a period of time, there was no hope. The first visual I saw on TV of Afghan women protesting on the streets, I had hope… I don’t think this generation will be silenced easily.”
Anisa Shaheed is a renowned journalist who was recognized by Reporters Without Borders in a group of 30 international “information heroes” across the globe.
“In order to hold the legislative, executive, and judicial branch responsible, you need the freedom of media and press. Currently, there is no freedom of press.”
“The international community worked very hard for the past 20 years to achieve freedom of press. They invested and worked very hard for 20 years, which all deteriorated in a matter of two months. The majority of media outlets have closed down, women remain at home, children have been deprived of education.”
“When the press goes to perform their duties and report, they are confronted with violence by the Taliban and in some cases, they are jailed and beaten too. The women that came out and protested, the majority of them were met with violence, and some of them were jailed too.”
Asila Wardak is a prominent women’s rights leader. She is the first Afghan woman elected as a member on the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation’s Independent Human Rights Commission. Wardak served as Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations and was also appointed as Director General of Human Rights and Women’s International Affairs at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“It’s important to highlight that not all Afghan women leaders left Afghanistan… So many Afghans continue their everyday struggles for their rights and freedom. Even if they are stopped by the Taliban, they continue their work wherever they are: Kabul region, provinces, neighbourhoods, everywhere.”
“Women leaders are not just raising the alarm bells on women’s rights. We are also raising that our country is facing a dire humanitarian crisis: 18 million Afghans are facing hunger, instead of having food three times a day, Afghans are having food one time a day. Our economy [has] almost collapsed.”
“Women’s leadership is critical for effective humanitarian delivery and assistance. Women are not just beneficiaries of help…Our voices and leadership are needed urgently to inform the design of humanitarian assistance. This is the only way to meet the unprecedented scale of humanitarian needs. Many women leaders now find themselves in the diaspora. This is not out of choice. We left Afghanistan for our safety and to continue our efforts.”
“One thing that keeps us going is the solidarity and encouragement that we receive from women leaders around the world. There is invisible power in solidarity… Women need to support and engage Afghan women from every corner of the world to [help] those that are inside the country.”