Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia to the UN High-Level Ministerial Meeting on the Humanitarian Situation in Afghanistan

Date: Tuesday, September 14, 2021

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Mr. Secretary-General,
Mr. Under-Secretary General,
Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

We are on the cusp of catastrophe in Afghanistan.

We must stand in solidarity with Afghan women as we define and implement our collective humanitarian response. Daily, we see new violations of women’s human rights which left to continue unchecked will jeopardize decades of progress.

Gender equality must always be at the center of effective humanitarian response. We cannot succeed if we fail to serve, empower and be informed by women.

In Afghanistan, this fact is doubly true: how we handle the humanitarian response today will also shape the lasting trajectory of gender equality in Afghanistan into the future.

This is an inflection point. It is a moment where we must demonstrate that the international community’s clearly stated commitment to women’s human rights is sincere, or risk complicity and failure. The eyes of the world are upon us. 

To live up to the promise we have made to the women and girls of Afghanistan, UN Women is highlighting five key areas for action:

  1. Ensure neutral and impartial aid delivery. We must make every effort to avoid an approach to delivery of humanitarian assistance which does not allow for women to fully participate as humanitarian workers. We applaud the Emergency Relief Coordinator for his insistence of this in his meeting with the Taliban on 5 September. 

    Aside from the simple issue of women’s human rights, this is essential for two main reasons that go to the heart of operational effectiveness:

    • To protect lives in the immediate term: Humanitarian aid will fail to reach a massive proportion of the population if women are not involved because gender norms will prohibit women and girls from receiving aid from men. What’s more, we know that aid in the hands of women has greater impact for their children and for those they care for - including the elderly and those living with disabilities - than it does in the hands of men. As a result, aid will be wasted and its impact diminished. That cost of that diminished impact will be reflected in lives lost.
    • To secure women’s rights for the long-term: If women are prevented from delivering humanitarian services, we become complicit in the entrenching of gender inequality in the public sphere, a situation that will become near impossible to reverse. The repercussions extend far beyond undermining the core principles of humanitarian response and will negatively define the long-term landscape for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
  2. We must hold the Taliban to account for the statements that they have made about protecting women’s rights.

    We must ensure that the Taliban’s rhetoric matches up to women and girls’ lived experiences. To do so, we must rigorously track women and girls’ opportunities to work, attend school, access health care and play leading roles in their communities, recognizing the uneven reality of women’s rights across the country, and identifying both where things are better as a source of examples of what can be done, and where things are worse, our efforts must not waver.

    Currently we see reports of women professionals being ordered to stay home or turned back from work and female university students and professors turned away from their classrooms. Only women in the health sector have been allowed to return to work by the interim administration. This impacts not only women. When women are not able to learn and earn it also harms their children, their families, their communities and all who depend on them.

    The crescendo of violations of women’s human rights, from exclusion from public life to being subjected to violence, continues daily. We must consistently and unambiguously call out all failures to live up to promises that have been made.

  3. We must put the humanitarian needs of women and girls at the heart of humanitarian response.

    Humanitarian assistance must reflect the specific and differentiated needs of women and girls. It must include services and support for women facing gender-based violence and access to health care services, including sexual and reproductive healthcare. And it must be delivered in a way that is culturally sensitive and permits women to actually access such services. Further, the stated objectives and goals of humanitarian programmes must be explicit about the intended results for women and girls and those programmes monitored and evaluated accordingly.

    Programmes such as UN Women’s need to be allowed to recommence. Of fourteen Women Protection Centres operated by UN Women in Kabul currently only two are operational. That some of these Women’s Centres have been taken over by the Taliban to use for their purposes highlights how far we are from anything resembling respect for women’s human rights.

  4. We must stand firm in opposing all violence against women.

    We note with alarm recent publicly sanctioned violence against women, such as the examples of women being whipped, hit with shock batons and beaten simply for exercising their right to peaceful protest. Such violence marks a clear escalation in disregard for women’s human rights and fuels an atmosphere of permission and impunity for all forms of violence against women. We know that in crisis and humanitarian situations, gender-based

    violence escalates. The actions of the Taliban normalize violence against women and are exacerbating and inflaming an already volatile situation and an environment of insecurity and fear.

  5. We must continue to push for women’s representation and leadership.

    The signal sent by the Taliban’s failure to appoint women to its interim administration is deeply concerning. We know that when women are absent from leadership roles in political and public life, their roles at every level of society are called into question. We must push as assertively as possible for the protection, reinstatement and elevation of women leaders in support of the Taliban’s stated goal of building an inclusive, strong, and prosperous society. The voices of women’s human rights defenders and civil society leaders must also be protected and promoted.

Mr/Mme Chair,

The situation in Afghanistan is a litmus test for the international community’s commitment to women’s rights.

Every day we are hearing credible reports that the Taliban are becoming ever bolder in eroding and violating the rights of women and girls. Now is the time for a united response which rises to the challenge of making the Taliban accountable.

The decisions we make now will impact women and girls in Afghanistan not just today but for generations to come. They will resonate beyond Afghanistan, serving as a clear demonstration one way or the other of

the truth of our global commitment to gender equality and to women and girls all over the world.

UN Women urges all participants at this conference to demonstrate that we collectively deserve the world’s trust as bold, proud and unambiguous defenders of gender equality.