The world abandoned Afghan women

Do senior officials from the U.S., China and Russia really plan to keep talking to the Taliban as if its fighters are not murdering civilians — including female activists — across Afghanistan, attacking schoolgirls and telling women they cannot leave the house without a man to accompany them?

Plenty of governments seem happy to break bread with Taliban negotiators since the U.S. under Donald Trump’s administration made a deal with them and President Joe Biden decided to honor it. In December 2001, the U.S. under George W. Bush pledged funds to support the women and children of Afghanistan. His wife Laura said, “The fight against terrorism is also the fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Any such promises are now hollow, exposed as disposable symbolism.

Representatives of the hard-line Islamist group met with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month and have recently been in Moscow, Tehran and Doha. And while they continue to travel freely (removed, temporarily, from a United Nations blacklist while peace talks are underway) their fighters have made rapid advances across the country, leaving a frightening toll of death and mayhem as U.S. and NATO troops prepare for a full withdrawal by Aug. 31.

The Afghan government and civil society called for action over the Taliban’s attacks on civilians, asking those nations involved in talks with the militants to insist on an immediate ceasefire and a genuine resumption of the peace process. The U.N. Security Council did convene a special meeting on the crisis on July 6 and 7. But nothing emerged to solve the problem.

In the areas collapsing under the Taliban, women make up the most vulnerable group. Civilian deaths are up by nearly 50% and more women and children were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 than in the first six months of any year since records began in 2009, the UN said last month.

There is so much at stake. A generation of Afghan women who have taken their place in society are now watching that space shrink before their eyes. They entered public life as lawmakers, local governors, doctors, lawyer, teachers and public administrators, working for two decades to help create a civil society and generate opportunities for those who come after them.

Now the Taliban are going door-to-door in some areas, compiling lists of women and girls aged between 12 and 45 years for their fighters to forcibly marry. Women are again being told they cannot leave the house without a male escort, they cannot work, study or dress as they please. Schools and colleges are being shut and businesses destroyed. The exodus of those who can afford to flee the country is growing by the day.

Farkhunda Zahra Naderi, a former lawmaker and senior U.N. adviser to President Ashraf Ghani and now member of the Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, has seen her country open up over the last two decades to become part of the global community, brought together via real-world and online connections, powered through education, business and political ties.

“My greatest fear is now they are marginalizing women who have been working in these leadership positions, who have been a strong voice against the most powerful abusers but also working with them to change the situation on the ground.” If they eliminate these leaders, she says, who will be left to speak up for women and defend the gains made over the last 20 years.

Along with women’s rights, democracy is perishing. It is clear the Taliban cannot win Afghanistan at the ballot box. An Asia Society survey of Afghans in 2019 — that last time such a poll was published — found the proportion of the population who say they have no sympathy with the Taliban grew to 85.1% from 82.4% in 2018. Absent any political capital, they are now trying take the country by force.

The problem is, the longer it takes for the international community to act, the further the Taliban will push into civilian areas, using people’s homes as staging posts for attacks and forcing children to act as human shields to protect them from air strikes as they move around the hinterland, warns Ahmad Shuja Jamal, director of international affairs and regional cooperation at the Afghan National Security Council. The U.N. Security Council meeting should have been the time when condemnations gave way to action in the face of these atrocities, Jamal said.

Beyond surveys, there are public outpourings that indicate Afghans do not want the Taliban to take them back to the dark ages.  Unless the international community acts, these courageous actions will be pointless and the U.S. and its allies will have made martyrs of the very women and children they had promised to protect.

Ruth Pollard  specializes in conflict reporting across the Middle East and North Africa. From 2016 she’s been based in New Delhi, where she’s working on politics and security stories across South and South East Asia for Bloomberg.