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Position paper: Advisory Group for a Global Summit for Afghan women and girls

Expert Comment

Image credit:A young girl walks across rooftops in Herat, Afghanistan. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We, the undersigned, have been working individually and collaboratively to support Afghan women and girls since the Taliban takeover of the country in 2021. We came together to support a call by Zehra Zaidi of Action for Afghanistan and Afghan women leaders for a global summit for Afghan women and girls (“Global Summit”). Many of us form the Advisory Group on a Global Summit and are co-signatories to a letter sent to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 3 December 2022, as well as a Concept Note sent to various Governments and the UN.

Since then, the Taliban have banned university education for women, as well as the employment of female NGO workers. This has led directly to the suspension of almost all work in Afghanistan by large INGOs and cast uncertainty over the future of donor support to humanitarian action in the country, with devastating implications, specifically for Afghan women and girls. Numerous Afghans are dependent on this aid for basic services, livelihoods and wider economic stability.

The ban accelerated plans for a visit to Kabul by the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, and the Executive Director of UN Women, Sima Bahous, in January 2023. A key outcome of this visit was agreement on a joint UN/OIC international conference on women and girls in the Muslim world after Ramadan in either Kuwait or Jordan. The undersigned are committed to supporting this event and any subsequent international conference on Afghan women and girls, assuming certain conditions are met by the organisers and sponsors. Below, we have set out a series of recommendations for the UN, OIC and donor governments.

Recommendations

Some of these recommendations have already been made by individual members of our coalition. The international community has been slow to move beyond words and statements in relation to Afghan women and girls to a unified vision and strategy, coordination of efforts and a roadmap for a credible and achievable set of outcomes. Above all, it has often failed to incorporate recommendations by Afghan women themselves or key stakeholders working in the intersectional areas impacting Afghan women and girls.

General

  1. The two most urgent current crises in the Muslim world relate to Afghan and Iranian women. Afghanistan and Iran must be given corresponding prominence and space in the conference agenda.

  2. Afghan women must be part of the main conference, present as expert speakers across a range of issues. It is insufficient to merely have a side panel or a few invited speakers and attendees in the main hall. This would lead to accusations of merely inviting “the usual suspects”, when this conference is a key opportunity to provide so much hope to so many.

  3. There needs to be dedicated and holistic focus on the range of issues facing Afghan women. 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 Afghan women leaders together to devise a roadmap and set of recommendations on the sort of concrete actions they would like to see; and (b) Conduct detailed, expert discussions on a range of urgent issues, including violence against women, food security, education, employment, and the leadership role of Afghan women in international policy-making and negotiation on Afghanistan. Our coalition is committed to supporting the delivery of such a pre-summit.

  4. Stakeholder committees – which include a significant number of women experts, in particular Afghan women – should be established across thematic areas to feed into the work of the conference secretariat.

Negotiation with the Taliban

  1. UN, OIC and donor nation delegations meeting with the Taliban should include women at a senior level, particularly Muslim and regional women with an understanding of the socio-cultural contexts and local languages. Any such negotiations must include “an unwavering commitment to the full, equal participation of all women and girls in Afghanistan and their protection from violence” (https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/09/human-rights-council-discusses-situation-human-rights-afghanistan-focus). Delegations should include UN Women and Afghan women with experience in aid delivery. Gender/inclusion advisors should be appointed to support the delegations.

  2. The UN, OIC and donor nations must set out a credible mechanism for how the Taliban would be held to account if they continue to violate the fundamental human rights of women and girls.

Human rights and violence against women

  1. The UN must:
  • Implement an independent human rights and monitoring mechanism, and publish reports of violations and violence and intimidation.
  • Fund and maintain shelters and safehouses for Afghan women and girls at risk of violence.
  1. The OIC should establish a committee of Muslim legal scholars to systematically address human rights violations by the Taliban against women and the wider population of Afghanistan. Such a committee should include religious, legal and academic scholars and leading Muslim women.
  2. Any approach on human rights must be intersectional and inclusive of religious and ethnic minorities, disabled and LGBTQ Afghans.


Humanitarian assistance and food security

The humanitarian crisis in the country is dire, with many families struggling to access basic food items due to high costs and the disruption of supply chains. But a humanitarian-only approach has serious limitations, not least because it accelerates the decay of Afghan institutions, creates aid dependency and is not rooted in local leadership, especially by women.

  1. The UN and other aid providers must support longer-term responses that prioritise the engagement of local women’s organisations in policy and programme design and delivery, to ensure the meaningful inclusion of women as leaders, project designers and direct recipients.

  2. All internationally-supported programmes must put pressure on the Taliban to involve women, including by refusing to implement projects until women-led organizations are involved to use financing dedicated to meeting the needs of Afghan women and girls.

  3. The UK, OIC and other donor entities must directly fund women’s groups that reach larger communities and women heads of households. This support should be designed with a small grants approach, which would enable smaller, women-led organizations to be part of aid disbursement within the funding restrictions on NGOs set by the Taliban.

Education

Given the progress made on education in Afghanistan over almost two decades, it is essential that the international community prevents a total collapse of the education system, even as it continues to decry Taliban restrictions on women’s and girls’ education and female teachers.

Aid providers must continue supporting education in Afghanistan through humanitarian assistance and innovative programmes, as follows:

  1. Donor countries should fund the UN to continue to do the following:
    a) pay teachers’ salaries (including women teachers suspended from service)
    b) expand the community-based education system to sustain demand for education and ensure girls can continue to access some schooling.

  2. The UN and OIC must find ways to support distance and alternative forms of secondary education for Afghan girls – both inside and outside the country. This will involve close and careful collaboration with local communities, women leaders and educators and civil society organizations to identify needs and opportunities.

  3. All governments should work with their education institutions to facilitate Afghan girls and young women to study abroad, through scholarships at high schools and universities. This support will help foster a future generation of leaders who can return the country to hope through peace and education.

Governments of Muslim-majority countries must continue to denounce the Taliban’s actions and misuse of Islam to justify regressive policies on education, and must work within the OIC to leverage their collective power and safeguard the interests of the Afghan people – especially women and girls.

Employment and training

Not being allowed to work or train has an overwhelmingly negative impact on women. In being banned from working, they are effectively, and permanently, cut off from learning and prevented from using their skills and knowledge as a productive part of the society in which they live. Employment generates income which – for a nation as poor as Afghanistan – is the difference between starvation and survival. More than just income, working generates dignity, independence, social networks, inspiration, ambition and the ability to feel valued and included. The value of women within and outside their households is a key indicator of prosperous societies and equitable futures for all, not least the girls of Afghanistan.

In healthcare and education, women employees have been vital. Therefore, the Taliban ban on working, together with the ban on education for women and girls, will set Afghanistan back for decades to come.

  1. The UN, OIC and donor governments must seek to restore women’s employment and training rights. This is not only the morally right thing to do: it is also essential for the economic sustainability of the country.

Asylum and resettlement

  1. The UN, OIC and donor governments must provide targeted financial support to nations such as Pakistan that are hosting large numbers of Afghan refugees. Moreover, they must support neighbouring countries continuing to receive refugees for resettlement.

  2. Afghan women and girls who have been resettled in Muslim-majority countries must be given access to housing, healthcare, educational opportunities, work permits and language classes (where applicable). Access to services must be inclusive of religious and ethnic minorities.

  3. The UN, OIC and donor nations must support Afghan women stranded in Muslim-majority third countries and provide housing and access to services, as well as safe onward passage so that these women can resettle and begin to rebuild their lives.

  4. Arrests of Afghan refugees for improper documentation and threatened forced deportation of Afghan refugees must be halted. To send women back to Afghanistan is at the very least a prison sentence where they would be confined to their homes, but given that they had already fled the country, there is a real danger that their lives would be at risk or they would be threatened with arrest, and face violence, intimidation or forced marriage.

  5. Women in Afghanistan who are most acutely at threat must be supported in securing exit and resettlement as an urgent priority, including provision by the UN, OIC and donor nations of:
    a) Chartered evacuation flights or other travel, and safe passage to planes or neighbouring country borders (South and Central Asia)
    b) Sustainable options for temporary relocation abroad by expanding existing visa categories.
    c) Temporary legal status and work/study visas (especially for Afghan women to continue and complete their education).

Civil society and Afghan women’s leadership

  1. The UN, OIC and donor nations should maintain, if not increase, support for civil society in Afghanistan and women’s leadership in Afghanistan and in exile.

  2. The OIC and donor nations including the UK should provide direct and flexible funding to Afghan women-led organizations to ensure that they can continue to provide critical functions, such as shelters for gender-based violence (GBV) survivors and at-risk women and girls, humanitarian relief, and supporting female human rights defenders. This funding will ensure that women-led organizations can continue their work on the ground and respond to the immediate needs of Afghan women and girls.

Signatories