Afghanistan: Global outcry at ‘institutionalised, systemic oppression of women’

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistFriday 24 June 2022

Image credit: ​​​​​​​timsimages.uk/Adobe Stock

Ten months after Taliban forces seized Kabul, Afghanistan is still reeling from the chaotic events of last year’s US withdrawal. Afghans now make up one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Almost half of those left behind in the country face acute hunger.

The UN Security Council will debate this week whether to extend travel bans on high-ranking Taliban members in response to the group’s ongoing oppression of women. Since the withdrawal, Taliban leaders have banned women from many areas of employment, reneged on pledges to reopen schools for all girls and re-introduced face veils for women in public settings.

The severity of the situation facing women in Afghanistan is incontrovertible, UN High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, told the most recent session of the UN Human Rights Council on 15 June. ‘Let me be clear: what we are witnessing today in Afghanistan is the institutionalised, systematic oppression of women,’ she said. ‘I call on the de facto authorities to honour their commitment to women’s rights, to urgently create a meaningful dialogue with Afghan women, and to listen to their voices.’

Attacks on women have grown exponentially since the Taliban takeover. In January and February 2022, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Project recorded the highest number of incidents of political violence targeting women since it started monitoring the country in 2017. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack identified at least 11 reported incidents of attacks against educators in Afghanistan in 2021. Several events, including threats, killings and abductions, specifically targeted female educators or those providing education to girls.

I worry about the brave people – the judges, the interpreters, all the people who were at risk – who were not getting the attention that they deserve because of special treatment being given to a particular group

Lord Peter Goldsmith
UK Attorney General 2001–2007

Lord Peter Goldsmith, who served as the UK's Attorney General from 2001–2007, says he’s appalled by the crackdown on women’s rights since last August. ‘I remember when I was in the Cabinet, one of the things that we thought we were doing was actually protecting women's rights,’ he says. ‘We knew what the problem with the Taliban in Afghanistan was and we thought that was the right thing to be doing. To see the way it's come back, denying education, denying rights, making women – I want to say second-class citizens, but it seems to me it's worse than second class – they really are down the pecking order.’

Federica D’Alessandra, Deputy Director of the Blavatnik School of Government's Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict and member of the IBA Human Rights Institute’s Council, says the Taliban’s ongoing efforts to suppress girls’ education should trigger alarm. ‘Depriving Afghan girls of such a sacred right is an unacceptable violation of international law and all states must ensure they pursue all legal and political avenues available to them,’ she says. ‘The international community has both a legal and a moral obligation to stand up for the rights of Afghanistan's women and girls.’

A recent report published by the UK House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee heavily criticised the ‘arbitrary and chaotic approach’ of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) evacuation in August 2021 and its failure to prioritise women and other vulnerable groups. The report, ‘Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan’, called on the UK government to ‘commit to a serious strategy for future engagement with Afghanistan.’ It said failure to do so ‘would abandon women and girls in the single biggest reversal of rights in a generation.’

Goldsmith points to concerns raised in the report over the decision-making process for prioritising evacuees, including allegations that the UK Prime Minister himself played a role in ensuring the evacuation of staff and animals from the Kabul-based Nowzad animal charity was prioritised over vulnerable and at-risk groups trying to flee the country.

Goldsmith says the Nowzad case speaks volumes about the UK government’s approach. ‘Resources were being diverted – so now it’s said and it was suspected at the time – to the process of dealing with an animal charity rather than individuals,’ he says. ‘Many people will say animals are just as important as people, but I worry about the brave people – the judges, the interpreters, all the people who were at risk – who were not getting the attention that they deserve because of special treatment being given to a particular group.’

Responses by other global powers have also drawn criticism but Goldsmith believes credit must be given to those, both inside and outside government, who worked tirelessly during the evacuation and in its aftermath. However, the UK’s mishandling of the evacuation will continue to mark a particular stain on its ‘balance sheet of international action’, he says. ‘It was an abdication of the responsibility that the United Kingdom had towards the people who assisted in the work in Afghanistan and an abdication of the responsibility towards people like the brave judges there who've been trying to uphold the rule of law.’

A spokesperson for the FCDO says that over 15,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan as part of Operation Pitting in August 2021. ‘We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal from Afghanistan and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine, including introducing new systems for managing correspondence and increasing senior oversight of our operational and diplomatic response,’ said the spokesperson. The FCDO denies allegations of the Prime Minister’s involvement in authorising any individual evacuations last August.

A Home Office spokesperson confirmed that around 4,000 individuals from Afghanistan have been brought safely to the UK since last August. The government says it is already working with over 300 local authorities across the country to house the individuals. Since June 2021, over 6,000 people have been moved or are in the process of moving into homes.

The Home Office says the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which replaced the previous Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy scheme in January, will provide up to 20,000 Afghan women, children and others at risk with safe and legal routes to resettle in the UK.

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