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Engagement key to reform of Taliban decrees restricting women’s rights

Women wait at a maternal health hospital, the only one of its type in Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/Shehzad Noorani
Women wait at a maternal health hospital, the only one of its type in Afghanistan.

Engagement key to reform of Taliban decrees restricting women’s rights

Peace and Security

The international community must continue to engage with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan despite deep disagreement with their approach to women’s rights and inclusive governance, the UN Special Representative for the country told the Security Council on Tuesday. 

Roza Otunbayeva, who also heads the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), called for a “reframed engagement strategy”, expressing concern over the “lack of positive direction” in current efforts.

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“The lack of trust on all sides is a serious impediment to building confidence but the doors to dialogue are still open,” she said.

“This moment, despite its problems, is an opportunity. We must ensure that the doors to dialogue are not shut.”

Taliban policies ‘unacceptable’

Ms. Otunbayeva said engagement has been significantly undermined by the more than 50 Taliban decrees aimed at eliminating women from public life and education.  

“The policies that drive the exclusion of women are unacceptable to the international community,” she said.

She also cited a new UN report based on more than 500 interviews with Afghan women, 46 per cent of whom said the Taliban should not be recognized under any circumstances.

“The question, however, is whether to continue engaging with the de facto authorities despite these policies, or to cease engaging because of them,” she said.  

“UNAMA’s view is that we must continue to engage and to maintain a dialogue.  

“Dialogue is not recognition. Engagement is not acceptance of these policies. On the contrary: dialogue and engagement are how we are attempting to change these policies.”

Reframed strategy

Ms. Otunbayeza told the Council that this engagement could be more structured and purposeful while remaining principled.

“A reframed engagement strategy must first acknowledge that the de facto authority bears responsibility for the well-being of the Afghan people, in all dimensions but especially concerning women,” she stressed.

Other components would include mechanisms to address the de facto authorities’ long-term concerns, as well as “a sincere intra-Afghan dialogue of the sort that was interrupted when the Taliban took power in August 2021.”  

Additionally, “a more coherent position of the international community” would also be required.

The cost of discrimination

Sima Bahous, head of the UN’s gender equality agency, UN Women, also briefed the Council. She told ambassadors that Taliban decrees are costing Afghanistan roughly one billion dollars a year, which will only increase.

The edicts are also exacerbating the dire humanitarian situation in a country where more than two-thirds of the population depend on assistance to survive and some 20 million, mainly women and girls, are facing acute hunger.  

She insisted that the way forward must be guided by women’s voices and the principles of the UN Charter.

“The past is full of examples of neglecting or ignoring women; the present is filled with the consequences. So, the future must be focused on listening to, investing in, and supporting women, as well as including them,” she said.

Call for action

Ms. Bahous recommended that the Security Council Committee that oversees sanctions against Afghanistan convene a session to examine the role it can play in responding to violations of women’s rights in the country.

“We must consider the messages we send when we frame the situation in Afghanistan purely or exclusively as a humanitarian crisis,” she further advised.

“It is an economic crisis, a mental health crisis, a development crisis, and more. And the thread that connects these different facets is the underlying women’s rights crisis. This must be the primary lens through which we understand what is going on and what we must do.”

Against 'gender apartheid'

She also urged ambassadors to fully support efforts to explicitly codify “gender apartheid” in international law.

“This systematic and planned assault on women’s rights is foundational to the Taliban’s vision of state and society and it must be named, defined and proscribed in our global norms so that we can respond appropriately,” she said.

Legal expert Karima Bennoune, who also briefed ambassadors, recalled that some Afghan women activists recently went on a hunger strike to demand that the international community recognize that gender apartheid is being practiced in their country.

“This Council has repeatedly called on the Taliban to end its grave abuses, but there is more you must do to hold them accountable for their decimation of women's rights. I am here today to ask the Council to make clear through action that the international community will not tolerate the system of gender apartheid the Taliban have imposed,” she said.

The Special Representative later took questions from correspondents outside the Security Council chamber: