As girls are being sold in the streets of Kabul, the Norwegian government flew in the Taliban and people from Afghan civil society into Oslo to talk to one another and with Western diplomats. While United Nations agencies have warned repeatedly that 22 million Afghans face acute hunger, the Taliban regime flirts with legitimacy while failing to comply with even its most basic assurances to commit to women’s human rights and girls’ full access to education.
Most secondary schools remain closed to girls, and women high school teachers who have not been paid for the last seven months have resorted to begging in the streets to feed their families. The UN and the rest of the international community must respond to the urgent needs of ordinary Afghans facing starvation this winter but must equally insist on the regime’s compliance with basic human-rights standards for all, particularly for women and girls.
The recent announcement by the United States to unfreeze $3.5 billion in Afghanistan’s assets from the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City to go toward humanitarian relief is a useful step. But is it enough to keep tens of millions of people from dying of starvation, including children? The Taliban have promised to reopen schools for girls and for those in university by the end of March. We’ll see if it happens, and if it doesn’t, what the rest of the world will do.
Indeed, Britain is co-hosting a UN pledging summit in late March to boost donations toward a $4.4 billion goal to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. The summit poses another important moment for countries to reinforce that global aid must emphasize the inalienable rights of women and girls in the country.
Overall, the translation of international human-rights obligations from the UN to settings in which the organization operates remains a challenge, especially in Afghanistan. However, national contexts are precisely the space in which the UN and the international community can make a substantial difference in carrying out women’s basic human-rights norms. It is also where action is urgently needed. This is especially the case with overwhelmingly oppressive regimes regarding women, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The question of if and how a balance can be achieved between the commitment to uphold the human rights of women and to preserve cultural legitimacy warrants close attention by the UN. According to Susan Moller Okin, a political philosopher and American-based academic from New Zealand who specialized in multiculturalism and gender (and died in 2004), wrote that “[m]ost cultures have as one of their principal aims the control of women by men.”
The events in Afghanistan since August prove yet again that in times of crisis, the rights of women are demoted, devalued and expendable. They also show the propensity with which the UN and its member states sometimes accept as a fait accompli the cultural norms that place girls and women at risk of the worst physical harm; are denied access to their most basic human rights; and support their unquestioned subordination.
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is recommending ways the UN can ensure women’s rights through its political mission in Afghanistan as the organization’s mandate is scheduled to be renewed in March. One suggestion is to strengthen the mission’s human-rights monitoring work, which can focus explicitly, the league says, on the rights of women and girls, among others in society.
The imposition of a gender apartheid system in Afghanistan excludes women from all dialogue in the continuing emergency humanitarian scenario, precisely when their ideas and contributions are most needed. It sows the seeds for negative results, protracted insecurity and conflict to resurface.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobelist, makes this precise point: When she was 15, she was shot in the head by Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban because of her advocacy for girls’ education. She told the UN Security Council last fall that she was hearing more about cases of Afghan girls and women teachers being told to stay home. She urged global powers to send a “clear and open message” to the Taliban that any working relationship is contingent on girls’ education.
“Speaking with one voice for girls’ education can compel the Taliban to make real concessions,” she said. “This is vital not only for Afghan women and girls themselves but for long-term security in the region and our world.”
Conflict often worsens societal inequalities. This is evident in Afghanistan, as reflected in the increasing instances of child marriage, the prohibition on women working and the overall imposition of a gendered system in the country since the Taliban takeover. However, conflict and the breakdown of the societal framework that ensues also provide a window of opportunity for challenging and redefining cultural and gender norms. The UN and the international community must take advantage of their position of power in negotiations with the Taliban to seize the moment to secure women’s human rights and participation in Afghan society.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?