We have a plan that prioritizes Afghanistan’s women — we’re just not using it
As Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken testifies in Congress about the Afghan withdrawal, new attention must be brought to the commitment to protect Afghan women. For all the talk about the international community’s commitment to protect the women of Afghanistan, it does not have a good track record.
Women were excluded from the negotiations with the Taliban in 2020. They were sidelined during planning for the Istanbul talks scheduled for April 2021, which were later postponed after the Taliban failed to show. And they were pushed down to the bottom of evacuation priority lists as the U.S. and its allies scrambled to get their nationals, personnel and Afghan contractors out.
Today, it is Afghan women who are most at risk from the Taliban takeover. Within days of the slick press conference by the Taliban’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, who promised to respect women’s rights, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Each day we hear of a different decree, limiting women’s freedoms. In different provinces, women are being told to stay at home and not come to work. One senior Taliban leader said women should not be permitted to work alongside men. Women are being told that they must be chaperoned outdoors and women and girls are banned from participating in sports.
Reports of violence are increasing — even as it is becoming increasingly hard for Afghan women to communicate with the outside world. We are already hearing direct reports of the Taliban conducting house-to-house searches for activists, journalists, people who worked in Afghanistan’s previous government, and people who worked with the United States. Some women were beaten and whipped as they tried to get to the airport.
United Nations Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet, implored member states last month to ensure that “a fundamental red line will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, and respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression and employment.”
The gains that this generation of women and girls have made over the past 20 years have been extraordinary. By 2021, 40 percent of Afghan girls were attending secondary school, a right that was banned under Taliban rule. Maternal mortality rates fell 64 percent from 2000 to 2015. Women made up 27 percent of Afghanistan’s parliament. This progress is now in peril.
The women who have dared to speak out against the Taliban or advocate for women’s rights are at the top of their kill lists. They are targets for kidnapping, torture and assassination by Taliban forces. They are in mortal danger.
We cannot allow the illusion of security to overshadow the risks facing Afghan women and girls. We must continue our efforts to get at-risk women out of the country. The U.S. government must urgently prioritize safe passage for vulnerable Afghans and set up a humanitarian parole program specifically for Afghan women leaders and other high-risk women.
In 2019, the U.S. unveiled its Strategy on Women, Peace and Security. It provides a policy framework that requires the United States to prioritize the needs and perspectives of women in conflict prevention, resolution and reconstruction, to protect them during conflict itself and to support them as decision-makers and agents of change throughout.
At a 2019 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on women and conflict, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) referred to Afghanistan as the first real “test” for the strategy. He said that unless we apply it to our efforts there, it won’t be the “real deal.”
Now it is being put to the test. The strategy, as well as the Women, Peace and Security Act and National Action Plans before it, make it clear that women’s rights are not simply a moral imperative. They are central to the United States’ national security and defense policy.
There is bipartisan support to help the brave women of Afghanistan. Last month, a group of 46 U.S. senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), signed a letter urging the Biden administration to take action to protect and support Afghan women leaders. The letter called for the creation of a humanitarian parole category for women leaders, activists, human rights defenders, parliamentarians, journalists and members of the Female Tactical Platoon of the Afghan Special Security Forces. This is yet to happen.
As we watch with horror the desperation and the danger in Afghanistan, we must go back to the principles of the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace and Security. For it to mean something, we must put Afghan women’s lives at the top of our foreign policy agenda. We owe it to the women on the streets fighting for their freedom and their survival.
Teresa Casale is the advocacy director for Mina’s List, which has worked in Afghanistan since 2014 on a range of programs focused on advancing women’s political participation and advocating for women’s involvement in the peace process.
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