Dear Prime Minister,
As activists, NGO leaders, former policy-makers and friends of Afghanistan, we welcome the UK government’s interest in supporting the convening of an international conference to address the grave and deteriorating situation for Afghan women and girls. We are also encouraged by the publication of your government’s new ‘International Women and Girls Strategy’ on International Women’s Day.
The situation in Afghanistan presents a true test of the strategy’s commitment to women and girls. Since our last correspondence, the Taliban have imposed new restrictions on women and girls – effectively preventing any access to work or education beyond primary level – and continue to harass, detain and kill those who dare to dissent. The UN/OIC proposal to co-host an international conference on women and girls in the Muslim world creates an urgent opportunity for the international community to engage around a coherent and coordinated response to the crisis in Afghanistan. This must be seized; Afghan women have already fought alone for too long.
Our coalition and the undersigned are committed to supporting this event and any subsequent international conference on Afghan women and girls, but only if certain conditions are met by the organisers and sponsors. We have set out our demands for the conference – together with a wider set of recommendations for future international action on Afghanistan by the UN and OIC – in a Position paper published on ODI’s website.
This International Women’s Day, your government must act to show that it stands with Afghan women who continue to fight each day for basic freedoms against a fundamentalist crackdown on their rights. The very least the UK can do is listen to these brave women. To this end, we urge that:
1. The UK Government uses its leadership on the women and girls agenda to make submissions on our coalition’s behalf to the UN and OIC:
i) The UN and OIC need to ensure the joint conference is genuinely impactful and not yet another ‘talking shop’. It must secure collective agreement on urgent, coordinated action to significantly improve the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan, and by extension their families and communities, and the security of the nation and region as a whole.
ii) The UN and OIC need to commit to concrete steps to persuade the Taliban to reverse the bans on girls’ and women’s education and female NGO workers. Failing that, the international community must collectively agree to hold the Taliban to account and to bolster Afghan civil society, especially women’s rights organisations.
iii) Afghan women must be part of the main UN/OIC conference, present as expert speakers across a range of issues. It is insufficient to merely have a side discussion, panel or a few invited speakers and attendees in the main hall. There needs to be dedicated and holistic focus on the range of issues facing Afghan women, including intersectionality i.e. women from religious and ethnic minorities, disabled and LGBTQ Afghans, who face multiple layers of risk.
As suggested by Fawzia Koofi, First Woman Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament and Peace Negotiator, a pre-summit could be convened to:
(a) Bring a wide range of Afghan women leaders together to devise a roadmap and set of recommendations on the actions they would like to see;
(b) Conduct detailed, expert discussion on a range of issues, including violence against women, food security, education, employment and the leadership role of Afghan women in international policy-making and negotiation on Afghanistan.
2. The Prime Minister agrees to meet with our coalition, including Afghan female leaders (as set out in our coalition’s letter dated 3 December 2022).
3. The UK should follow the example of Germany, Sweden and Denmark in establishing a specific refugee status for Afghan women and girls.
This follows a longstanding campaign to create a dedicated asylum route for Afghan women at risk. Eighteen months on from Operation Pitting, there is a public sector equality duty to address the gender bias that has emerged in the Afghan resettlement programme. The failings of the Afghan resettlement provisions have been lost as a result of the narrative around Ukraine and Channel boats. We also urge that the specific case of Afghan refugees must be distinguished during any debate on the Illegal Migration Bill, given the UK’s role, along with other NATO members, in creating the conditions for their flight from their home.