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What’s next for the women of Afghanistan?

Some political leaders in the West have called for as many evacuations of women and girls as possible in the coming days, but evacuations have proven difficult and dangerous since the arrival of Taliban fighters in Kabul. Public Domain

Life for women and girls under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001 was brutal. Many Afghan women now fear that the past could repeat itself as Western countries, including Switzerland, struggle to respond to the militant group’s return to power.

This content was published on August 27, 2021 - 09:42
Julie Hunt (video); Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi (text)

Forced to veil from head to toe in public, barred from schools, universities and jobs, and subject to corporal punishment or even death for violating codes of Sharia law, the female population of Afghanistan bore the brunt of the Taliban’s repressive policies a generation ago.

Taliban spokesmen have said things will be different this time around, telling the media that women will be able to work and study, and even hold government positions.

For Swiss-born Nadia Qadire’s female relatives in Kabul, however, there is little doubt as to what the future holds.

“To them it’s obvious – they lived through it 20 years ago,” said the masters student at the University of Bern, who is in touch with her aunts and cousins every day. All are staying home, unable to go to school or to work.

“Afghan women and girls are educated, determined and modern – they go to school and university, they work as doctors, journalists or professors, especially in cities like Kabul,” said Qadire, who visited Afghanistan, her parents’ country of origin, most recently this summer. “So [in recent days] their lives have changed completely.”

Concern is growing that the Taliban is failing to respect human rights – especially those of women and girls – as they seize power in many parts of the country. But it’s unclear whether the international community will be able to prevent rights violations from becoming the norm and hold the Taliban accountable for their actions.

Fundraising for Afghanistan

The Swiss Solidarity charity has launched a fundraising campaign to help people impacted by the crisis in Afghanistan.

Money can be donated via the website (www.swiss-solidarity.orgExternal link) or using e-banking services with the IBAN account number CH82 0900 0000 1001 5000 6.

Swiss Solidarity is the humanitarian arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, SWI swissinfo.ch’s parent company. The foundation also cooperates with private companies and media outlets.

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At a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Afghanistan earlier this week in Geneva, the High Commissioner for Human Rights said her team had received “credible reports” of abuses, including restrictions on women’s right to move around freely and girls’ right to attend schools.

“There are grave fears for women, for journalists and for the new generation of civil society leaders who have emerged in the past years,” said Michele Bachelet, calling women’s rights “a fundamental red line”.

The Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations said it had received reports – though unconfirmed – of civilian men being killed and women and girls being forced to marry Taliban fighters. According to ReutersExternal link, women journalists, healthcare workers and law enforcement officers have been killed in a series of attacks after peace talks began last year between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Hollow assurances?

Asked whether the Taliban’s assurances about women being allowed to study and work can be trusted, a spokesperson for the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, said the foreign ministry could not give an assessment under current circumstances.

Gender equality has been a major pillarExternal link of Swiss foreign policy since 2017. Switzerland’s development agency, SDC, implements UN Resolution 1325External link on women and peace and security, with a particular focus on preventing gender-based violence in conflict situations. Switzerland has also invested heavily in women’s education in Afghanistan (see box).

Two decades of Swiss investment in Afghanistan

Like many rich countries around the world, over the past 20 years Switzerland has invested heavily in development projects in Afghanistan – to the tune of roughly CHF500 million ($547 million).  Education has been one of its main areas of focus.

Whereas in 2001 just one million children – mostly boys – attended school, by 2020 this had grown to around 7.5 million, 39% of them girls, the Swiss foreign affairs ministry told SWI swissinfo.ch. 

The Alpine country has also poured resources into expanding livelihood options for women in the agricultural sector and supported the inclusion of women in Afghan police forces – an important element in improving the protection of girls and women, foreign ministry spokesperson Pierre-Alain Eltschinger pointed out.  

“These are significant achievements,” he said.

Eltschinger said the department was now in contact with partner organisations in the country to assess the situation and the level of access to areas where they had been active.

“The next few weeks will show how, where and to what extent the projects can continue,” he said.

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At the recent Human Rights Council meeting, Switzerland saidExternal link it was deeply concerned about attacks on human rights defenders and minorities and that any violations should be independently investigated.

Despite the challenging security situation and threats to locals connected with the fight for women’s rights, the United Nations, like the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, have said they intend to stay in Afghanistan.

Geneva Call, a humanitarian organisation that has engaged with women in Afghanistan on violence reduction, told SWI swissinfo.ch that the women among its small local staff are continuing to work. The NGO is trying to ensure they can do so safely by relying on a network of civil society and religious actors in areas where the team is active.

For many other organisations, however, work is on hold.

A Swiss-based NGO that works with Afghan schoolgirls contacted by SWI swissinfo.ch said that its programmes were on pause while it assessed the situation on the ground. The NGO did not wish to speak on record as it wanted to ensure the safety of its staff and the schoolgirls.

Shrinking international leverage

Whether the international community can effectively protect vulnerable women and girls in the country is questionable. Some political leaders in the West have called for as many evacuations of women and girls as possible in the coming days, and transparency and monitoring in the long term.

But evacuations have proven difficult and dangerous. On Thursday two deadly explosions went off just outside Kabul airport, killing up to 90 people as reported at the time of publication. The attacks came as governments were rushing to complete evacuations ahead of an August 31 deadline, the day the United States is set to complete its exit from the country.

Commitments to take in vulnerable Afghans have also been lacking. Switzerland has said it has no plans so far to accept Afghan refugees on a large scale beyond the local staff of the SDC and their family members – a decision that has been heavily criticised by political parties and both domestic and international NGOs.

Whether the West will be able to hold the Taliban to account for rights violations is also uncertain. One option could be to make financial aid conditional on respect for human rights, but any additional leverage is ebbing away with the planned departure of American troops and the failure of intervention.

Yet among the women who remain in the war-torn country, many are determined to fight for their future. Qadire pointed out that women in several cities ventured out onto the streets to protest the Taliban takeover.

“They hope that everything they built for themselves [in the last 20 years] will not vanish,” she said, adding that the women also hope they will not be abandoned to their fate. “The most important thing people [outside Afghanistan] can do is to amplify [these women’s] voices.”

“They want to be heard and to be supported.”

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