As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, on Aug. 26, Afghanistan sits in stark contrast to much progress elsewhere in the world. It’s clear that the country is going backward and that the prospects for equality for Afghan women and girls dim with each passing day.
Two years have passed since the Taliban’s takeover, and their rule has been devastating to Afghan women, pushing them further into the shadows of oppression. Since coming to power, the Taliban have issued a series of severe edicts banning women and girls from school, prohibiting women from working — even for the United Nations (a violation of the UN Charter) — and, most recently, closing all beauty salons, which cuts off a vital source of income for many thousands of women.
Confronted with the erosion of their rights and dreams, Afghan women and girls find themselves thrust into the throes of a mental health crisis. The devastating repercussions of this reality are alarmingly evident, as leaders of local nongovernmental organizations bear witness to an unsettling surge in suicide cases across parts of the country. As one Afghan woman put it, talking to UN officials who visited the country, “We are alive, but not living.”
Women’s Equality Day does not exist in the Taliban’s Afghanistan: there can be no equality under gender apartheid.
The forced disappearance of women from the fabric of Afghan society has provoked much international outrage but no useful response from the global community. For the West, the actions of the Taliban are recognized as fundamental human rights violations, sparking an ongoing debate over engagement and levying sanctions to defend women’s rights while offering no resettlement opportunities to address the plight of Afghan women facing poverty and deportation as they reside in legal limbo in the region.
Nor do these debates provide a long-term vision for the economic development of what is now the poorest country on Earth. As Afghanistan’s neighbors argue for a global focus on economic and social issues in the country, these same states remain reluctant to publicly recognize that the exclusion of women from education and other spheres of public life are equally insurmountable obstacles to full security and sustainable development.
How a country treats its female citizens directly correlates to its propensity to wage war. Women play a key role in countering extremism and radicalization, a global concern in Afghanistan. We women are strong advocates for peace, and our bad treatment is a harbinger of violence on a greater scale. Women’s equality is essential for the economic development of a country; we are a critical component of the workforce, and our participation positively impacts the GDP of a country.
Conversely, the failure to educate women has an adverse impact on the health and socioeconomic well-being of families and communities. Food, shelter, education and employment are interdependent human rights of equal importance.
In a time of great turmoil and seemingly hopeless political factionalism, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution in April calling on the Taliban to reverse these discriminatory policies. In doing so, all 15 Council members reaffirmed “the indispensable role of women in Afghan society, including in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, in peace-building, and in the humanitarian response, and stressing the importance of their full, equal, meaningful, and safe participation for Afghanistan’s future and long-term development.”
The exclusion of women from power is not only unjust, but it is also dangerous to society.
All 15 members of the Council also expressed “deep concern at the increasing erosion of respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls in Afghanistan by the Taliban, in particular women and girls’ lack of equal access to education and economic opportunities –including access to work, participation in public life, freedom of movement, justice, and basic services — the absence of which make peace, stability, and prosperity in the country unattainable.”
If this shared global political consensus were effectively translated into bilateral interactions between individual states and the Taliban, alongside influencing the policies and actions of those states striving for deeper economic and political involvement with Afghanistan, a tangible, positive transformation could be realized. This change would promote peace and security as well as prosperity and human rights for all Afghans.
The Security Council has called for an independent assessment, to be carried out by a UN appointee and Turkish diplomat, Feridun Hadi Sinirlioglu, to provide recommendations for an integrated, coherent approach to address the challenges faced by Afghanistan, including “humanitarian, human rights and especially the rights of women and girls, religious and ethnic minorities, security and terrorism, narcotics, development, economic and social challenges, dialogue, governance and the rule of law.”
We look forward to these recommendations, which are due in November. The international community should use all avenues of political and economic leverage collectively to promote the status of Afghan women and girls and their access to education and employment — as well as food and shelter — in the common interest of everyone.
We, the Women’s Forum on Afghanistan, is a network of prominent Afghan and global women leaders, chaired by Margot Wallstrom, a former foreign minister of Sweden. It is led by a steering committee comprised of Shahrzad Akhbar, a former head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission; Fatima Gailani, a former president of the Afghan Red Crescent; Fawzia Koofi, a former deputy speaker of Parliament; Habiba Sarabi, a former Afghan minister for women’s affairs; and Asila Wardak, a former head of human rights/international women’s affairs for the Afghan Foreign Ministry.
We hope to see Women’s Equality Day celebrated in Afghanistan one day, but today is not that day.