We Must Not Forget the Women of Afghanistan


Women under the Taliban
The plight of Afghan women during the period 1996-2001, when the Taliban were last in power in Afghanistan, has been well documented. A UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) report from 1997 referred to the onerous social, cultural and economic restrictions imposed on the population which, in the case of women, meant that they were forbidden to work outside the home, had limited access to healthcare, were subject to a host of mobility restrictions, with girls banned from school and university. The constant threat of physical violence for possible violations of “the bewildering array of new restrictions” was an added burden, with the vast majority of women in the country actually being victims of violence or knowing someone who had suffered from it. This led many to think that the country had “plunged back into the dark ages,” pointing, for instance, to the stoning to death for alleged adultery of a mother of 7 at a stadium in front of a large crowd of men and children in May of 2000, or multiple cuttings of hands and feet for other transgressions.

By 1999 the condition of women and girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban had become so appalling that the normally dysfunctional UN Security Council managed to issue a unanimous Resolution in which it expressed its “deep concern over the continuing violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights, particularly discrimination against women and girls.”

Gains over the past 20 years
The Taliban were deposed in 2001 and over the next 20 years there were significant improvements in the economic and social status of women in Afghanistan. The list is long but one can point to a few notable developments. By 2018 the post-Taliban government, recipient of large donor support, had built over 3000 functional health facilities, which provided ready access to medical care to some 87% of the population, compared to virtually nothing for women under the Taliban. In 2017 the school enrolment rate for girls in primary and secondary education was about 38-39% compared to about 6% in 2003. By 2017 over 100,000 women were receiving a university level education. Most tellingly, female life expectancy had risen from 56 years in 2001 to 66 years by 2017, a huge increase in demographic terms over a relatively short period. Mortality in childbirth also fell sharply. In 2020, Afghan women made up 21% of civil servants, 16% of senior management positions, and 24% of parliament in contrast to virtually none under Taliban rule. The female labor force participation rate rose 7 percentage points: from 14.8% in 2000 to 21.8% in 2019.

Newly liberated from the perverse, self-serving, infantile, medieval, misogynistic Taliban codes of conduct Afghan women made huge strides across multiple areas of economic, social and political endeavor. By the time the Taliban made a comeback and took over Kabul on August 15, there were 250 females judges in Afghanistan, a development made possible by the 2004 post-Taliban constitution which granted numerous rights for women that greatly improved their socio-economic status. So great was the setback for women under the 1996-2001 Taliban rule that even after the encouraging developments noted above over the past 20 years, the Gender Equality and Governance Index for 2020—a composite metric that compares more than 60 indicators of female empowerment in the areas of governance, labor market, education, entrepreneurship and violence—ranked Afghanistan 158 out of 158 countries, just behind Iran.

Cultural exceptionalism
Back in the late 1990s the Taliban were quite adept at conveying the notion that they should be left alone to implement their own religious and cultural values without foreign meddling. When it came to the treatment of its citizens, the Taliban, not unlike many other countries, were great defenders of the concept of national sovereignty (i.e., we, the government, do as we please within the boundaries of the nation state). I expect that, back in power, they will quickly go back to their old playbook and rehearse the same arguments. The problem with the “cultural exceptionalism” argument, however, is that it is deeply flawed: in essence it is a very dishonest claim because those that promote it do not represent those on whose behalf the claim is made with any sense of legitimacy. As noted by Thomas Franck, the sorts of oppressive practices for which the Taliban were known—in full evidence in present-day Afghanistan—are little more than the self-interested preferences of a power elite. “If Afghan women were given a chance at equality, would they freely choose subordination as an expression of unique community values?” If Iranian women were given a free choice, would they choose to live under the multiple legal restrictions embedded in Iranian laws which, de facto, turn Iranian women into second class citizens?

A ray of hope?
So, what to do, other than despair at the likely plight of Afghan women under the Taliban in the months and years ahead? Can one find a ray of hope for Afghanistan´s 20 million women? Here are some ideas.
  1. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Roughly as poor on income per capita terms as the Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea and Niger. GDP contracted by some 5 percent in 2020 in part due to the impact of COVID-19 and is expected to contract sharply again in 2021. The Taliban will face two immediate challenges: a population that tasted some of the economic and political freedoms enshrined in its 2004 Constitution, will be less willing to go back to the Middle Ages; memories are fresh from that disastrous experiment and women, in particular, may resist in ways that were not possible a quarter of a century ago. The second challenge is that the Taliban need to be seen to govern and for this they will need to do the kinds of things governments do in the 21th century: trade with the rest of the world, run public services, pay salaries, ensure people do not go hungry, protect them from the pandemic, educate and train the population, and so on and no low-income country in the world is able to do this without the support of the international community and its donor infrastructure. The hope is that the international financial institutions, with the support of their largest shareholders, and the donor community more generally, will use their considerable leverage to steer the Taliban into the 21st century, reminding the government of its UN Charter commitments on human rights, pluralism, and the rule of law. In particular, these organizations and partners must be uncompromising in the defense of the rights of Afghanistan´s 20 million women.
  2. But the crisis in Afghanistan highlights a basic flaw of our current global governance system, as it emerged from the ashes of World War II. We need to rethink the concept of national sovereignty and redefine national interests in a way that provides incentives for states to find common ground in the pursuit of the noble (and practical) values embedded in the UN Charter, with its emphasis on the protection of human rights, the rule of law and other such universal principles. In this respect, I find these words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan highly relevant in the current context: “If states bent on criminal behavior know that frontiers are not the absolute defense; if they know that the Security Council will take action to halt crimes against humanity, then they will not embark on such a course of action in expectation of sovereign immunity.”

Perhaps the time has come to extend the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle affirmed by the United Nations in 2005 to ensure the protection of populations from war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, to other forms of crime, such as those committed by the Taliban 25 years ago against Afghan women and girls. In the absence of zealous attention by the international community today, it is highly likely that such crimes will recur.

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