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Afghanistan now ‘most repressive country’ for women, Security Council hears

Roza Otunbayeva, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, briefs reporters after the Security Council meeting on the situation in the country.
UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Roza Otunbayeva, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, briefs reporters after the Security Council meeting on the situation in the country.

Afghanistan now ‘most repressive country’ for women, Security Council hears

Peace and Security

Afghanistan under the Taliban remains the “most repressive country in the world [for] women’s rights”, the senior UN official in Kabul told the Security Council on Wednesday, while nevertheless voicing a nuanced position on the importance of continuing to engage with the group.

Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva, UN Special Representative and head of the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, strongly condemned recent Taliban decrees that have further eroded the rights of Afghan women.

However, she also urged the international community to preserve “whatever political space exists” for frank discussions with Afghanistan’s leaders, warning of rapidly deteriorating humanitarian and economic conditions across the country.

‘Talents confiscated’

Following Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban in August 2021, the UN remained committed to “stay and deliver” while calling for unified support for the country’s people.  

Initial engagements with the de facto Taliban authorities were relatively constructive. However, decisions over the last year – including bans recently imposed on women accessing higher education and working for NGOs – have been widely viewed as unacceptable.

In her address to the Council, the Special Representative expressed regret that, on International Women’s Day, she bore few comforting messages for the women of Afghanistan.

‘Dreams crushed’

“At a moment when [the country] needs all of its human capital to recover from decades of war, half of its potential doctors, scientists, journalists, and politicians are shut away in their homes, their dreams crushed, and their talents confiscated,” she said.

Bans across Afghanistan are currently in effect against women working, studying and travelling without male companions.

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In particular, a December 2022 ban on women’s employment with NGOs – including groups that deliver crucial humanitarian aid – has had serious consequences for both the population dependent on that aid, and the Taliban’s relationship with the global community.

The UN deputy chief

Calls to engage

The Special Representative expressed her hope that the Taliban will pay heed to the international community’s unified position and reverse those decrees, as well as others that are further eroding the rights of women.

However, she also called on the international community to construct an agenda for discussions with the Taliban – including on issues that matter to them – as the basis of a gradual confidence-building process, citing Afghanistan’s grim economic and humanitarian prospects and the need for access.

The country is still home to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with two-thirds of the population, or 28 million people, estimated to need aid in 2023.

Nearly half of the population, 20 million people, are currently experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity, and six million are one step away from famine-like conditions.

Clean water, basic toilets and good hygiene practices are essential to the health of children in Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/Omid Fazel
Clean water, basic toilets and good hygiene practices are essential to the health of children in Afghanistan.

‘Time is short’

Against that backdrop, Ms. Otunbayeva warned the Council that “time is short, and demands on donors are multiplying.

She voiced her fear that, as 2023 progresses, bans on women and other restrictions imposed by the Taliban may further hinder humanitarian access to those most in need.

The UN’s ability to deliver is also being impacted by growing concerns over the looming threat posed by the terrorist group known as Islamic State – Khorasan Province, or ISIL-K, and worries that the Taliban lack the capacity to address it.

Noting that UNAMA continues to engage daily with Taliban officials, the local opposition, civil society groups and many others, she also called on the Council to renew the Mission’s essential mandate for another year.

Experts urge Taliban to end ‘harmful annihilation’

The “harmful annihilation” of women’s rights in Afghanistan must be reversed, UN-appointed independent rights experts said on Wednesday.

In an appeal coinciding with International Women’s Day, the experts urged Taliban leaders to lift the many restrictions imposed on women since they seized power.

“Women and girls have been banned from entering amusement parks, public baths, gyms and sports clubs for four months,” the experts said in a statement, adding that since the Taliban takeover, “women have been wholly excluded from public office and the judiciary” too.

Today in Afghanistan, women and girls must also adhere to a strict dress code and they are not permitted to travel more than 75 kilometres without a male escort, the experts explained.

“They are compelled to stay at home.”

The rights experts, who report to the Human Rights Council in an independent capacity as non-UN staff, also urged the Taliban authorities to fulfil their obligations under the international human rights treaties to which they are a State party.

These accords include CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.