Will the US abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan?
Women and girls in Afghanistan are now almost entirely excluded from public life after just three short months of full Taliban rule — since the collapse of the Afghan government and U.S. military withdrawal. Gender equity is nonexistent, and human dignity is openly attacked via state-sponsored oppression.
The situation is tragically ironic today, the 73rd anniversary of the United Nations’ proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the affirmation of equal rights of men and women. It’s also the day the Nobel Peace Prize will formally be awarded to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov for “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace” in the Philippines and Russia.
Neither human rights nor freedom of expression exist in Afghanistan today. Even though the Taliban pay lip service to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the gains that Afghan women and girls made over the past 20 years are all but lost. These include their tremendous efforts to better the lives of their families, their communities and their country.
Even worse, it’s becoming more probable that more than half of Afghans will face “emergency levels” of food insecurity this winter. This is an unprecedented level of acutely food insecure people, according to the United Nations.
There are at least three things that the U.S. government and civil society can still do to help stem the tide and affirm our support for the Afghan people who stood with us in the pursuit of a more peaceful and prosperous future.
First, we must solve the Catch-22 of leaving Afghanistan: Anyone trying to leave now needs a visa, but there are currently no U.S. diplomatic or consular services there. The same is true of many other countries, so it’s impossible to get out. The United States and the U.N. should establish a humanitarian corridor for people wishing to go and to allow much-needed aid to enter Afghanistan. The U.S. government should implement electronic filing and remote consular interviews.
Second, the public and private sectors must mobilize to meet the grossly underacknowledged challenges of Afghans idling in third countries as they await final resettlement. Facing limited visa pathways and lengthy processing periods, many evacuated Afghans who aren’t on designated U.S. military bases overseas have been left in a legal limbo, in remote locations with scant resources. Many individuals and families face very real risks of hunger, abuse and exploitation because there are only limited protections of their rights and agency, and they don’t have money because of the liquidity crisis in Afghanistan.
Finally, we cannot let the world forget about the millions of women and children who remain in Afghanistan and face the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Once critical pillars in the pursuit of freedom, equity and development in their country, women are once again being denied even the most basic human rights. Half of all children under 5-years-old are at risk of severe acute malnutrition. And adolescent girls and young women – a vital influence on future innovation, growth and development – have been excluded from educational institutions in most regions of the country and commodified amid an ever-growing humanitarian crisis.
Before the Taliban returned to power a few months ago, 84 percent of Afghans agreed that women should have the same educational opportunities as men; more than 3.5 million girls were in school, and 100,000 women were enrolled in public and private universities, compared with none in 2001.
In the first news conference after Kabul fell on Aug. 15, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said, “Our sisters, our men have the same rights.” But the Taliban’s history and current actions belie their words.
The Taliban are on what journalist William J. Dobson has called “the dictator’s learning curve.” They will soon — or have always been — a member of “Autocracy Inc.,” the unofficial club of modern autocrats, according to writer Anne Applebaum.
The theme for this Human Rights Day is “equality — reducing inequalities, advancing human rights.”
If we truly intend to meet this moment, we must prioritize the status of the most vulnerable among us. And that means the people of Afghanistan.
Although our withdrawal from their country is complete, the United States and the international community still have a tremendous role to play in supporting Afghans, especially women and children.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts is the director of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.
Paul Fagan is the director of the Human Rights and Democracy programs for the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.
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