Women’s rights will be raised at the UN meeting being attended by Taliban, UN official says

By Richard Bennett

Mr. Bennett is the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan.

The New York Times

June 28, 2024

In May 2022, nine months after the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan, I visited a girls’ secondary school that was still open in the north in spite of a ban on education for girls above sixth grade. Communities in the area, which has a long history of valuing education, had refused to comply. I met with a group of 11th-grade math students who told me about their hopes for the future. “I don’t want to end up trapped at home and condemned to a domestic life,” one female student told me. “I want to finish school and become a teacher so that I can help my family and others.”

I ended that visit to Afghanistan with hope that perhaps the situation would not become as dire as I — and many Afghans — feared. But when I returned a year later, everything had changed. The school was closed. Instead of attending lessons, the student and her classmates were forced to stay at home, their teachers transferred to a primary school. Now, among the many other challenges facing girls and women under the Taliban’s rule, a mental health crisis has gripped the country. Girls report anxiety, depression and hopelessness, and there have been reports showing an alarming surge in suicides.

It is against this backdrop that the United Nations will convene a third meeting of international special envoys in Doha, Qatar, next week to discuss a political path forward for Afghanistan. The Taliban have accepted the U.N.’s invitation to join. (They declined to attend February’s meeting.) After discussions with the Taliban, the meeting’s agenda will focus on fighting narcotics and helping the private sector — and does not include human rights or women’s issues, and neither women nor Afghan civil society representatives will be included.

If these exclusions are the price of the Taliban’s presence in Doha, the cost is too high.

When the Taliban retook power in August 2021, its leaders initially said that education for girls above the sixth grade would be suspended until conditions were suitable under Islamic rules. Now, more than 1,000 days later, school remains off limits for girls older than 12, and restrictions on education have expanded to universities. The Taliban now say education is “an internal matter,” and it remains unclear when — or if — schools will reopen to girls.

Denial of education is just one of many Taliban decrees against women. Female civil servants were instructed not to report to work when the Taliban retook power. Women are now barred from working at nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations. Some female-owned businesses, like beauty salons, have been shuttered. Women and girls need to be accompanied by a male relative to travel.

The net result is that today, women and girls have been virtually erased from public life, deprived of their most basic rights. Afghan women began describing the Taliban’s policies as gender apartheid in the 1990s, and they and many others, including me, want such policies to be criminalized under international law.

The Taliban’s institutionalized oppression is devastating not only for the current generation of Afghan women and girls. If left unchecked, it will inflict irreparable harm on future generations of Afghans as well. Boys, raised in a system that legitimizes the dehumanization of women and girls, may follow their leaders’ example and continue to treat women badly, and they are vulnerable to radicalization, sowing seeds for security concerns that extend beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The crippling gender policies and their violent enforcement are also severely depriving L.G.B.T.Q. people of their fundamental rights.

Despite all of this, Afghan women and girls are pushing back. Some have protested in the streets to demand the restoration of their rights, risking arrest, detention and violence. In the face of shuttered schools, girls with access to the internet, who are a minority, are taking classes in English, math and science, and female entrepreneurs are moving online, finding creative ways to circumvent restrictions on their movement. “We did not create the Taliban, but we are the ones who have to live with them in control,” one woman told me. “There is no other choice than to find ways to survive and learn.”

It would be easy to leave these women to carry on their struggle alone, citing the excuse that the international community has done enough damage in Afghanistan and should stay out of the nation’s affairs. But that would be a grave disservice both to those women and girls showing defiance and to many others who do not have the economic capacity to fight back. We have an obligation to meet their bravery with increased protection, support and solidarity.

The focus on politically neutral topics at the upcoming meeting in Doha was designed to entice the Taliban to the table. A formal discussion of human rights will be missing, despite the fact that Afghans who disagree with the Taliban’s ideology have made clear that respect for human rights, especially the rights of women and girls, must be a prerequisite for any engagement with the Taliban. This is happening despite the fact that an independent assessment requested by the Security Council last year advised any road map for Afghanistan’s reintegration into the international community should include measurable improvements in human rights.

Afghanistan has suffered more than four decades of conflict and had a questionable human rights record during the 20 years of the Islamic republic. But since retaking power, the Taliban has not only attacked the rights of women and girls; they have been responsible for wide-ranging violations and abuses — including killings, disappearances and arbitrary detentions — as well as a campaign of retaliation against former enemies, despite their claim of an amnesty. People from minority communities are especially at risk.

Also conspicuously absent at the main Doha meeting will be any representation of non-Taliban Afghans. Though some civil society and women’s groups will be included in meetings on the sidelines, this representation appears to have come only after significant external pressure, but it should have been baked in from the beginning. This is not the first time non-Taliban Afghans have been sidelined from political discussions, though history has repeatedly shown that failure to include all Afghans in political processes undermines their credibility and sustainability.

The Taliban are not recognized by the United Nations as a government and should not be treated as such. They must not be allowed to use the threat of backing out of the talks to dictate the terms of this conference or any future international process. It is a mistake to measure the success of this meeting by whether the Taliban show up.

The bravery, dignity and perseverance of millions of Afghans in the face of such gross injustice must be matched by strong, principled and effective international leadership. Afghan women and girls have often said to me that their greatest fear used to be that the Taliban would return to power. Now they say that they fear the Taliban will be recognized simply because of their power, in disregard of their cruel policies and practices.

The international community must insist on reversing the restriction of Afghan women’s and girls’ rights, on women’s meaningful participation in decision making and on accountability. Having these issues explicitly on the agenda in Doha would still be an important first step.

Richard Bennett was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council as special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan in April 2022. He was the head of the human rights component of the U.N. assistance mission in Afghanistan and a long-term adviser to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission beginning in 2003.

Women’s rights will be raised at the UN meeting being attended by Taliban, UN official says