Event ReportsPublished on Oct 18, 2021
The Red Line: Women's rights in Afghanistan

Research has shown that more than 50 percent of loss in development in Afghanistan is due to low education of women, poor health outcomes, and limited participation of women in the workforce. Gender equality is a core aspect of sustainable development and extremely difficult to achieve in a country like Afghanistan, which is burdened by conflict and patriarchy. The return of the Taliban threatens to reverse the small gains that were achieved over the last two decades. What will be the future of Afghan women now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan? Is there a role for the international community in supporting the rights of women in Afghanistan? These are some of the critical questions that we intended to address in our panel discussion, “The Red Line: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan”, a part of a series of roundtable discussions around the pressing development challenges to health, food security, and gender in Afghanistan after the August crisis. Sunaina Kumar, Senior Fellow, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, moderated the dialogue and opened the discourse around gender equality by pointing to the decades of ongoing political strife in the Afghan region which had progressively worsened the situation for women, propelling Afghanistan to the bottom of the Global Gender Gap index. More than 50 percent of loss in development of the country is due to the limited participation of women in the workforce, low education, and poor health outcomes. The small leads that were made in education, workforce participation, and political participation are at the risk of being reversed, even as the women are reporting their disagreement with the Taliban by protesting on the streets. Kumar underlined the critical questions related to liberties of women and reinstated the importance of such discussions and spaces, from where potential solutions can emerge.

Mariam Wardak, Social Rights Activist, Founder of Her Afghanistan and a former advisor to the Afghan government began with her valuable comments, as an Afghan woman herself on the present day situation in Afghanistan. Understanding the Afghan approach to women’s rights in the last 20 years delivered the much needed context on the evolution of the Talibani stronghold in the Afghan Islamic culture and tradition. Wardak describes the Taliban as a “Majority group of uneducated people with very limited interaction and exposure to women, which limits their understanding of governance. And the lack of cultural understanding in the International Community in supporting a state like Afghanistan is a real bottleneck.” Bringing back our focus on the difficult discussion around lost livelihood opportunities due to receding of International presence, Wardak described the need for female Islamic scholars, a case which her organisation ‘HerAfghanistan’ had time and again campaigned for, to be able to negotiate with the Taliban on application of the Islamic Sharia law and that of Quran for Afghan women.

Heather Barr, the Co-Director for Women’s Rights at the Human Rights Watch and a researcher on Afghanistan expressed her shock and disbelief at the recent developments, which were in direct violation to the very basic human rights. Women’s work, healthcare, safety, and education are being compromised by the Taliban, and women and girls are suffering as a result of it. The International Community abandoned the Afghan women after 20 years of promises and should’ve shown more integrity in handling the current situation, Barr stated. She advocated for a united front and response from the international community to the plea of Afghans, in general, and Afghan women, in particular.

Amb. Lakshmi Puri, Former Assistant Secretary General at United Nations and Former Deputy Executive Director at UN Women, threw light on the United Nations Security Council’s resolution 1325, on Women, peace and security, passed in the year 2000. This resolution had put women’s voice, participation and leadership at the forefront of the Sustainable Peacebuilding movement. Afghan women’s rights have been systematically violated and are now at the centerstage in the battlefield of conflict resolution. Recounting the Taliban's violent suppression of women’s rights, its religious extremism and partial interpretation of Islamic law, Puri had argued that the international community had for 20 years tirelessly worked towards providing the Afghan women opportunities to bounce back from the damages they incurred in terms of human rights. Talking about India's stance on the issue, Puri described the landmark resolution 2395 that holds the Taliban accountable to women’s rights protection and promotion passed on 30th August. The international community must coerce the Taliban to form an inclusive government through negotiated political settlement with full meaningful and equal participation of women.

Mamta Kohli, the Senior Social Development Advisor for the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office explained that her stance was around a more structured international response to the present crisis amidst the re-emergence of poverty in Afghanistan. Calling for neutral organisations that can channelise the state effectively, employ women in mediation in international communities, and develop a united stance for negotiation. Kohli emphasised on a wider economic angle on women’s rights and understanding that women in Afghanistan aren’t one big monolithic group but come from a variety of backgrounds.

The discussion concluded with Ms. Kumar requesting some policy recommendations and insights from each speaker in dealing with the situation of crisis in Afghanistan. Ms Wardak spoke from the Afghan women’s perspective and in her concluding remarks reiterated the importance and accountability that organisations like the United Nations should take for causing chaos in Afghanistan along with the notorious ways of the Taliban. She also talked about the men standing up for women as allies in this difficult hour as a crucial measure to enable negotiations with Afghanistan. Ms Barr, lamented on the current state of affairs as a menace to Human Rights as she called for more leadership to stand for the cause, especially after 20 progressive years and countries with a feminist foreign policy to take a strong stance against the Taliban. She laid heavy importance on finding allyship in other Islamic countries such as Qatar and Saudi in initiating a negotiation with the Taliban and recalled the crucial role of the silenced Afghan media. Amb. Puri, talking from the International Community’s perspective, pressed on Taliban’s need to attain legitimacy in the broader political context and suggested we use it as a leverage to reach a common ground. Ms. Kohli summed up her views on a structured response for humanitarian workers and developing a framework for holding the development organisations on ground accountable while speaking from the perspective of a development organisation such as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

This report is written by ORF intern, Avni Arora

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