The Afghan peace talks being held in Doha, Qatar represent a glimmer of hope for the people of Afghanistan. They offer the prospect of a possible cessation of the daily violence and atrocities the people of Afghanistan face and the establishment of a stable governing body, returning fundamental rights to all Afghanistan’s citizens, especially its women. While the host of issues being discussed in Doha are crucial, women’s rights is an issue that is consistently avoided and swept aside.
The issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan has had plenty of media coverage over the years, with various governments and international organisations denouncing the lack of rights for Afghan women. The lack of basic rights for women is as detrimental to Afghan society. Women and girls have borne the brunt of violence and instability throughout the years of conflict, only to be heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the era of Taliban rule that commenced in the second half of the 1990s, women were active members of Afghan society. At that time 70% of teachers in Kabul were women. Once the Taliban came to power, women’s fundamental rights to education were revoked and the co-educational system in Afghanistan was dismantled, making multiple state run schools into all boys schools. One of the Taliban’s edicts in 1997 called for a nationwide ban on public education for all women and girls. As a result of this, and despite efforts by many women intent on educating their daughters despite the restrictions, literacy rates in the country fell to some of the lowest in the world, 13% in urban areas and as low as 3% in some rural areas. Some women set up schools for girls in private homes despite the increasingly oppressive environment and increasing violence toward those who dared oppose the Taliban and their restrictions.
The Taliban didn’t just restrict the right to education for women and girls but also the right to seek employment. In 1997, the Taliban banned women from working in public places. Bans on the freedom of movement and degrading access to health care for women made matters worse. With a majority of hospitals destroyed during the civil war and the rest located only in urban centres, infant mortality rates increased along with the chances of a mother dying during childbirth.
Despite more than a decade passing since the Taliban were removed from power, equal protection and rights for women still seems a long way off. This, coupled with the seemingly imminent withdrawal of foreign troops, means that the issue of fighting for women’s rights may be put on the back burner in Kabul, undoing considerable work done by women to achieve some progress on the issue.
Despite the international community hoping for the US to play a more significant role in pushing for women’s rights in Afghanistan they have largely failed to do so. In the recent 2020 Afghanistan Conference, the US encouraged Afghanistan to prioritise the “protection of the rights of women and girls”. The problem however arises when this commitment remains an encouragement on paper and does not translate into actual policy. The Trump administration just this past February signed a deal with the Taliban which in summation focussed on a ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, intra-Afghan negotiations and counter-terrorism measures. Unfortunately, amongst all these points, there were none that ensured a commitment to working toward the betterment of women’s rights in Afghanistan. A reduced US presence in Afghanistan may pave the way for a greater role by other powers. Countries such as China, Iran, India, Russia and Pakistan already play a role in Afghanistan and a greater commitment on their part to further stability and creating an environment where women’s issues can be heard and worked on would go a long way, not just for Afghanistan but also for creating a more prosperous region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not made things easier for women in Afghanistan. A UN women study showed how the pandemic has affected women and girls disproportionately as compared to men, in terms of employment, health, migration, unpaid care and education. The exposure that the pandemic has given to economic and social vulnerabilities is especially stark in the case of Afghan women. While access to health care has been a challenge in Afghanistan for years now, the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Most women already had reduced access to health care and most are now unable to find any access. Moreover, due to the restrictions and complexities caused by the Taliban with regard to women’s employment, most of them now work in the “informal sector”. Unfortunately, one of the largest tolls of the pandemic has been the loss of work for many in the informal sector, which in this case has been a majority of Afghan women. About 63% of women who were surveyed claimed to have lost their informal sector jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. The pandemic has also had an adverse impact on education for girls, which was already problematic in various regions in Afghanistan. The girls that were finally enrolled in school, due to the pandemic, are now most often at home, as a consequence of school closures disrupting their education. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown just how essential it is that women are included as part of any new government in Kabul so that issues that concern women are effectively highlighted and acted on.
Keeping in mind the years women have spent facing the hardships and consequences of Taliban created rules, it is essential that the peace talks in Doha pay greater attention to the issues women in Afghanistan face on a daily basis. The role the international community has played in Afghanistan as well as the power they hold to push certain policy objectives should stop them jeopardising the few freedoms women in Afghanistan have finally secured for themselves. Given the especially taxing year many women have had due to the pandemic, these talks should push for a stable Afghanistan in conjunction with greater inclusion for women in society and less tolerance for gender based violence and discrimination.