Women in Afghanistan at the 78th UNGA High-Level Events

By: Rachel Guerreiro, NGO CSW/NY Administrative & Advocacy Intern

During the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), two high-level side events highlighted the urgency for prioritizing action on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan: “Combating Gender Apartheid: The Situation of Women and Girls in Afghanistan,” hosted by the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the UN and the Afghanistan Policy Lab at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and “Global Solidarity with Afghan Women and Girls,” hosted by the Permanent Missions to the UN of Canada, Indonesia, and Ireland. At both events, speakers and participants discussed the status of women and girls as the Taliban’s over 100 edicts restrict their movement, economic and public participation, and access to education. First-hand testimonies of young women and girls in Afghanistan demonstrate the severity of the situation. One testimony came from a woman who, remaining anonymous for her safety, discussed her role as an education officer in Afghanistan.  At the risk of her life and safety, she helps to operate hidden schools that serve 300 young girls across three provinces, and they are in desperate need of financial support. Another 18 year old, also anonymous, testified that since she has been unable to attend university, she has experienced severe depression and feels rejected by society, saying there are many more who are feeling the same.

These exclusions have violated women’s right to work and education and placing half the country’s population under what many are calling a de facto house arrest has severe implications. Young women who cannot attend school may lead to generations of illiteracy, an important indicator of social mobility and quality of life. Families with female heads of household, which make up about 10% of all households, are especially impacted by the work ban. In two years, the number of families living in poverty has nearly doubled, and twenty million face acute hunger, the majority of whom are women and girls. 

The silent mental health crisis resulting from extreme isolation and immobility was central to testimonies from Afghan women and girls at the two events. Unable to leave their homes without a male chaperone, women and girls are experiencing climbing rates of depression and suicide. This extreme isolation coupled with the Taliban's enforcement of hyper-patriarchal gender norms, has drastically decreased women’s decision making power in the country and in their communities. In remarks delivered to the UN Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous, presented survey data showing that just 22% of women reported meeting with women outside of their immediate family more than once per week. Women have also reported worsening relations with family members and their communities. To enforce the decrees, the Taliban has increased the severity of punishments not just for women, but for their male family members. This has resulted in an increased risk and rate of domestic violence. A staggering 90% of women surveyed by UN Women reported serious mental health issues. 

Suggested courses of action came from Afghan women present at the summit, with support from UN experts and Civil Society.  Afghan women appealed to the international community to include them in high level discussions on what should be done, and to create spaces for their voices to be heard by those in positions of power. They stipulated that any actions by the international community be taken in consultation with grassroots organizations on the ground in Afghanistan, and that their needs be front and center. 

The Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan, Richard Bennet, spoke at the high-level side event on Gender Apartheid, echoing some of the findings in his recent report. The term gender apartheid has been used frequently in discussions surrounding the situation in Afghanistan, however, is not codified in international law, which defines Apartheid in terms of race. Bennet stressed the strong possibility that the situation in Afghanistan may amount to Gender Apartheid and strongly advised that the Human Rights Council conduct an in depth study and develop a report on possible applications and implications of a legal classification for gender apartheid. Among the already existing instruments that may apply were the charges of gender persecution, which amount to crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute. Other suggestions included calls for the UNGA to call a special session to discuss ways to take action and acknowledge the scale and severity of the issue.

Ultimately, any actions taken need to be done in close collaboration with the women who are experiencing this reality. Their voices must be heard and amplified because what is happening in Afghanistan is not limited to Afghanistan. The impacts can spill over into other states and are a threat to women’s rights worldwide. The world is watching and the international community needs to take a stand to offer a resounding condemnation of the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls and mobilize global action. The women of Afghanistan want the world to understand that the Taliban’s extremism has no base in religion or cultural values, and that threats to the rights of women and girls can happen anywhere if decisive action is not taken to condemn them.