Speech: The women’s rights crisis: Listen to, invest in, include, and support Afghan women
Remarks delivered by UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous to the UN Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, UN Headquarters, 26 September 2023.
Since the Taliban took over Kabul more than two years ago, this Security Council has adopted several resolutions condemning the many forms of repression directed at Afghan women and girls. It has also heard directly from 13 Afghan women, the majority of whom spoke to this chamber from exile, where too many are forced to be. And their message to us, their message on what Afghan women want, wherever they are, is what women everywhere want: the right to live free and equal lives with dignity and respect.
Over the last year, UN Women has collaborated with UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] and IOM [International Organization for Migration] to regularly consult Afghan women inside the country, and to try and put women at the centre of international decision-making, as required by our women, peace, and security agenda.
This last quarter, women told us, once again, that access to education remains their highest priority. More than four out of five young women and girls who should be studying are out of school. The lifetime impact of this cannot be under-estimated, not only for the women and girls who are out of education, but also their families and communities.
While many of the demands of women living inside Afghanistan have remained unchanged, there are three marked shifts that demand our urgent attention.
First, women’s influence on decision-making has shrunk dramatically, and not just at the national and provincial level. At the community, extended family, and household levels, women are seeing their decision-making spaces and authority severely curtailed, with space around household decision-making shrinking the most. This is driven by increased poverty, a decrease in women’s financial contributions, the Taliban’s imposition of hyper-patriarchal gender norms, and women’s growing isolation. In our consultations, only 22 per cent of women reported meeting with women outside of their immediate family at least once a week, and a majority reported worsened relations with other members of their families and communities. This jeopardizes women’s mental health and increases the risk of gender-based violence.
Second, women tell us that, in addition to facing an ever-growing list of restrictions on their lives, these restrictions are being enforced more frequently and with more severity, including by male family members, as the Taliban hold them accountable to enforce their decrees. With these continued restrictions we see, among other things, increases in child marriage and in child labour.
Third, while a year ago, improving safety and security, especially for working women, was the second most pressing priority, it is replaced today by mental health concerns. As the percentage of women employed continues to drop, 90 per cent of young women respondents report bad or very bad mental health, and suicide and suicidal ideation is everywhere. They tell us that they are prisoners living in darkness, confined to their homes without hope or future. As SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] Otunbayeva said, they tell us that their elimination from public life is like a continuous fear of violent death.
Women in Afghanistan continue to demand that the international community provide spaces for them to speak directly with the de facto authorities, that international actors do not meet with the Taliban without women in their own delegations, and that international actors continue to use all means at their disposal to leverage and pressure for change, including the use of sanctions without exceptions for travel, and the issue of non-recognition.
Forty-six per cent of women consulted think that recognition should not happen under any circumstances, and 50 per cent think that it should only be granted after the Taliban end rights violations related to women’s education, employment, and participation in inclusive government.
The last time the Security Council met on Afghanistan, it was reported that there were more than 50 edicts and decrees restricting women’s rights. More have been added since.
The number of families living in poverty has nearly doubled in two years. More than two thirds of people in Afghanistan require humanitarian assistance to survive. Twenty million face acute hunger, the majority of whom are women and girls, and the cost of the food basket has gone up. Household debt has increased sixfold.
The Taliban’s attacks on women’s rights exacerbate this, pushing women out of jobs and opportunities to generate income, and out of the education they need to be part of Afghanistan’s future.
It is estimated that women’s employment has dropped by 25 per cent since the Taliban’s takeover compared to 7 per cent for men—and these estimates predate the many bans enacted since the end of 2022, which have barred tens of thousands of women from working in NGOs and the United Nations, and the forthcoming loss of more than 60,000 jobs that will come with the shutdown of beauty salons. These decrees are costing Afghanistan some one billion dollars per year, a sum that will only increase.
We must chart a way forward, together, guided by women’s voices and the principles of the United Nations Charter.
We have ignored these voices too often in the past. Afghan women were excluded from 80 per cent of peace negotiations from 2005 to 2020. The negotiations for the Doha agreement in 2020 excluded Afghan women and did not contain a single reference to or safeguard for women’s rights. Those failures were part of what brought us to where we are today.
The past is full of examples of neglecting or ignoring women; the present is filled with the consequences. So, the future must be focused on listening to, investing in, and supporting women as well as including them.
Women in Afghanistan will lead the change they need. They will find ways of speaking out, educating themselves, generating income, and helping others. They have done this before, and they will do it again. Our job is to hear and support them, including by finding spaces for them to meet with the de facto authorities, including women in our delegations when we meet with the de facto authorities, and using all of the tools in our toolbox to bring them out of the dark.
It also means putting money behind organizations led by and assisting Afghan women and women-run businesses. Seventy-seven per cent of women’s organizations did not receive funding in 2022. This is something we cannot accept. Just as Afghan women act with courage and creativity, opening clandestine schools and girls wearing boys’ clothes to access education, donors too can find innovative ways to reach women and girls, including through online platforms, radio, cash assistance, scholarships, and safe migration alternatives.
I leave you with three final recommendations.
First, we recommend that the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 convene a dedicated session on the role the Committee can play in responding to violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan, including hearing from Afghan women and women’s rights experts directly, updating the listing criteria, and using all the tools at the Committee’s disposal.
Second, we must consider the messages we send when we frame the situation in Afghanistan purely or exclusively as a humanitarian crisis. It is not. It is an economic crisis, it is a mental health crisis, it is a development crisis, and much more. And the thread that connects these different facets is the underlying women’s rights crisis. This must be the primary lens through which we understand what is going on and what we must do.
Third, we ask you to lend your full support to an intergovernmental process to explicitly codify gender apartheid in international law. The tools the international community has at its disposal were not created to respond to mass, state-sponsored gender oppression. This systematic and planned assault on women’s rights is foundational to the Taliban’s vision of state and society and it must be named, defined, and proscribed in our global norms, so that we can respond appropriately.
On International Women’s Day this year you invited a brave Afghan activist—Zubaida Akbar—to your deliberations. She told you what Afghan women told me when I was on mission to Afghanistan in January, and what Afghan women I met here at the General Assembly across my engagements this past week have echoed: that if you do not defend women’s rights here, you have no credibility to do so anywhere else. Zubaida Akbar was right. The world watches. In some places it watches to condemn, but in others it watches to emulate, as other countries and parties to conflict seek to mimic the violations that the Taliban have inflicted on women. The multilateral system is being tested. We must not be found wanting.
I thank you.