Op-ed: Afghanistan’s women are critical to its survival

By UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous

Date: Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Originally published on globalgovernanceproject.org

Afghanistan faces a devastating drought, country-wide food shortages, real threats of economic and financial collapse, brain drain and rising levels of violence against women. Yet recent actions by the de facto authority have, to date, excluded half of the population from contributing to Afghanistan’s national recovery and its future by preventing women from serving in the highest levels of office and from returning to their jobs, and preventing girls from higher learning. Without its skilled women to provide health services of all sorts, to teach, trade, farm, provide financial services, and engage in negotiation and humanitarian action of all dimensions, the country is exposing itself to accelerating poverty, violence and instability. The ripple effects will be felt across the region and beyond for generations as the country yet again potentially offers a foothold to extremists.

History is clear on what happens when women’s and girls’ rights are denied and suppressed; when high schools reopen to boys only, tertiary education and employment for women is blocked, with little or no access to basic services; and when women’s participation in public and political life is erased. We cannot be bystanders either in these violations or in the desperate cost of women’s exclusion from the economy and society.

The international community, including G20 leaders, have an opportunity to work together in unity to prevent the reversal of the hard-won rights of Afghan women and girls and to work constructively to enable a more inclusive trajectory that will actively foster peace and resilience in Afghanistan – and the region.

Upholding hard-won rights

What does this look like? First and foremost, leaders must continue to reaffirm – together – that women’s and girls’ rights are human rights. We must stand firm and united that there can be no flexible trading of these rights and make the inclusion and participation of women and girls in all activities and programmes conducted in the country an integral part of the agreement for support. We must recognise that any gains lost now will be difficult to win back later. From the start, humanitarian aid must be for all – and delivered by all. This is critical for aid to be effective and to reach the entire population, given the context of restricted mobility and access for women, who are kept deeply reliant on services provided by other women.

Practical solutions can be offered to advance a full spectrum of women and girls’ rights. To obstacles presented as reasons for withholding education for girls in high schools or university settings, specified funding to construct the needed additional, separate facilities can demonstrate willingness to support while upholding the principle of equal access to a complete education for girls. Or the employment of women to restore medical services and care to women in health centres or shelters for survivors of violence.

I ask G20 members to engage on women’s and girls’ rights in Afghanistan with the de facto authority using all the different tools and levers at their disposal, including expertise in Islamic jurisprudence, and to be clear about the possible consequences of non-compliance with internationally agreed commitments. Leaders from countries with similar cultural and religious contexts can share with the de facto authority their best practice experiences in implementing international human rights norms related to women and emphasise the importance of those norms in dialogues on regional/global security and international recognition.

Women’s engagement is vital

UN Women stands ready to coordinate and to convene members of the G20, including with diverse Afghan women leaders, for you to directly hear from them. We are available to bring together the different options, incentives and technical assistance that can be offered, in order to encourage the pathways to policies and practices that avoid any further damaging polarisation of agendas. Women’s engagement in these processes is vital.

Ensuring that women’s voices are heard and amplified means redoubling efforts to protect women’s organisations in Afghanistan, recognising the scale of closure that has taken place already, and continuing to support those groups and women in the diaspora so that they are heard. This includes by facilitating and funding their safe engagement and leadership, and finding new, flexible and safe ways to provide direct support to those inside and outside the country. I encourage leaders to continue to prioritise visas and resettlement for women human rights defenders and women who have had public roles, who fear retribution.

I ask members of the G20 to hold a common line in the concerted promotion of women’s and girls’ meaningful participation in all discussions and humanitarian activities, both in Afghanistan and internationally. Through unified commitment and actions, G20 leaders can make it clear that women’s rights are a non-negotiable component of peace and stability in Afghanistan and of sustainable and just societies everywhere.