Where are the women in discussions with the Taliban?

Afghan women shout slogans during a protest to demand that the Taliban government allow the reopening of girls schools and to provide ample employment opportunities, in Kabul, Afghanistan, 21 October 2021. (Keystone/EPA/Stringer)

When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul in August, the rights of women and girls were thrown into jeopardy.

In the months that have followed, the world has watched in horror as the hard-won gains of the past 20 years have been rapidly eroded. The Taliban have imposed restrictions on education, work and daily life, with women and girls barred from their schools and offices and rights defenders forced into hiding. But as the international community tries to begin negotiations with the Taliban, it seems they too have forgotten about Afghan women.

No women in the room. In recent meetings held between international delegates and agencies and the Taliban to discuss a range of different issues including women’s rights, no women have participated in the delegations. This absence has been widely criticised by women’s rights activists as well as those in the international community who closely monitor the women’s rights situation in Afghanistan.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released last week, since 15 August, more than nine countries and four humanitarian and development organisations including UNICEF and UNDP have sent all-male delegations to meet with the Taliban in Kabul. The report says: "The Taliban don’t refuse to meet women, and women meet with the Taliban all the time. But does it really matter if governments, UN agencies, and aid organisations send only men to meet with the Taliban? It matters a lot."

Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, also criticised the situation: “So the new requirement of discussing anything in Afghanistan: having only men in the room. Come on people. Do better. @UNICEFAfg I am looking at you!” she said in a tweet.

According to Heather Barr, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s women's rights division, governments and aid groups holding men-only meetings with the Taliban is a big problem.

Writing in the same Human Rights Watch report, Barr said when foreign delegations meet with the Taliban without the participation of women and the Taliban tweet the photos of their meetings, the delegates are part of their public relations campaign and contribute to making them look legitimate.

“Every time a diplomatic delegation or representative of a UN or aid agency meets with the Taliban, they should be raising concerns about these violations of the rights of women and girls and, where relevant, negotiating for their female staff members to be allowed to do their jobs,” wrote Barr. “Putting forward these concerns in a room full of men and no women rings hollow. Female colleagues belong in the room as well, and would bring personal experience as well as additional expertise to the discussion.”

In an emergency meeting of the Human Rights Council on 24 August, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Taliban leaders to respect the rights of all Afghans, and warned that the mistreatment of women and girls was a red line that they should not cross.

Just one week after the Taliban seized the capital Kabul, Bachelet cited reports that the rights of women and girls were already being violated.

“There were credible reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses taking place in many areas under effective Taliban control such as summary executions of civilians, restrictions on the rights of women, including their right to move freely and girls' right to attend schools, recruitment of child soldiers, and more,” Bachelet said in her report.

Women’s rights defenders fight on. Afghan women have never fully had their rights, and Afghanistan has never been a safe place for human rights activists. According to a report from a group of rights organisations, 17 human rights defenders have been killed from September 2020 until May 2021. But with the advent of the Taliban, the situation has become even more dangerous.

During the recent evacuation, many of the human rights activists and women's rights defenders left the country. The Taliban have closed the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and NGOs that defend women rights have been shut down.

According to Lailuma Nasiri, head of Afghanistan Justice Organization (AJO), the new Minister of Economy recently met with the heads of rights NGOs in Kabul. He said that they could continue their activities as before but that all the organisations led by women must appoint a male representative to the Minister of Economy.

“We had implemented many projects, including projects related to women rights, but now we have the new government that does not recognise a woman as head of an NGO on one side, and on the other side we have all the donor organisations who have stopped their funding, so all our projects are suspended,” Nasiri told Geneva Solutions over the phone.

Until the Taliban took control in mid-August, activists had been making strides in their struggle for women’s educational, civil, judicial and political rights in Afghanistan. Now, they fear the progress they made will vanish.