Bulent Kilic via Getty images

There is a window of opportunity to negotiate for the rights of Afghan women, but it is rapidly closing.

Since the Taliban seized power seven months ago, Women and girls in Afghanistan have almost disappeared from the public life. This includes most of the several million girls who were enrolled in schools, the 88,000 female students who were studying at public and private universities, and the many many women barred from returning to their jobs as judges, prosecutors, senior security officials, businesspersons and teachers.

Previously, women accounted for 36% of media workers, 28% of parliamentarians and the governors or deputy governors in more than half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. All have been removed. Their absence is a stark inditement which brutally exposes women and girls’ loss of fundamental rights and freedoms.

This week, the UK Government jointly hosts a virtual pledging summit to raise the £3.3 billion which the United Nations says is urgently needed to respond to the urgent humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. It’s crucial that during negotiations and discussions with the Taliban, women and girls’ rights are made a non-negotiable issue. This may well be the last chance we have to ensure that half the population are not permanently vanished.

Taliban assurances that this time around they would allow girls to exercise their rights “within Islamic Law” have turned out to be empty words. Rather, they wasted little time in expunging women and girls from the political and public spheres and confining them to their homes.

Within days of the Taliban’s takeover, women were told that they should not show up to work until “proper systems” were put in place to “ensure their safety”. Despite subsequent announcements that women can resume their jobs, various factors prevent many women from doing so. These include recently introduced restrictions on freedom of movement which require women to be chaperoned by male relatives, which in theory should apply for longer journeys or travel abroad but in practice is required also for travel closer to home. The restrictions include a dress code for women when using public transport and in certain other settings and there have already been reports of women being lashed for failing to conform.

Women no longer have a voice in government. Not only have they been excluded from the Taliban’s Interim Government, but the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has also been abolished, and women have been dismissed from local government and senior civil service roles.

According to reports, women who have a public profile routinely face threats, detentions, abductions and little protection in place. Women associated with the previous administration are among those who have been allegedly hunted down by the Taliban. Among those are  Banu Negar, a former female police officer who was killed in Ghor Province in early September 2021, and Alia Azizi, the head of Herat Women’s Prison, who remains missing since 2 October 2021 after responding to a request by the Taliban to report for work.

On 23rd March, the Taliban backtracked on their decision to re-open secondary schools for girls denying them education. 17-year-old Nadia, a Grade 12 student in Badakshan province of Afghanistan told Amnesty International: “We were all shattered. Some started crying, some stood silent. As much as I did not want to leave the school, I forced myself to move towards the exit gate. It broke my heart to once again leave the school not knowing if I will ever be allowed to return.”

Women have taken to the streets in protest, unwilling to accept this new reality and in defiance of a ban on demonstrations and public gatherings imposed by the Taliban. But they had to pay a heavy price. Excessive force has been widely used against protestors and, since last two months, at least 33 women’s rights activists and their families were detained or disappeared for speaking out or taking part in protests, and 40 more detentions were reported in the city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Among them are 29 prominent women activists and their children were arrested on 11 February while hiding in a women’s shelter in Kabul and who were detained for over two weeks. Prior to this, in January, Tamana Zaryab Paryani, Parwana Ibrahimkhel, Zahra Mohammadi and Mursal Ayar – were abducted from their homes, workplaces or off the streets and disappeared for 25 days after participating in demonstrations in Kabul. While the Taliban has denied any involvement in these cases, they are in line with what is becoming a well-established pattern of reprisals against and intimidation of women activists, including reports of torture.

At the same time, essential services for women and girls have been dismantled including any protections for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV). Following the Taliban takeover, GBV reporting systems have been suspended, the nationwide network of shelters closed, and essential medical care and other support services are no longer available. In a country where levels of violence against women are among the highest in the world, this puts the lives of millions of women and girls at risk.

But, despite the odds, women in Afghanistan continue to fight. Although fewer in number, street protests still occasionally take place, and Afghan women are finding other ways to keep their cause alive. A new social media campaign – #StandAfghanWithWomen – was launched earlier this year by Afghan women’s groups and activists calling on the international community to support their fight for the restoration of their rights and freedoms.

The failure up until now to leverage decades of support to secure respect for women’s rights in Afghanistan is unacceptable. The international community must use every available lever to pressure the Taliban authorities to respect women and girls’ rights including their rights to education, work and equal participation in political and public life. Once the Taliban can access international aid and if formally recognized by the world – there will be little scope to negotiate for girls’ access to education and respect for all other rights of women and girls.  Failure to do so will be a catastrophe we must avoid at all costs, or the next generation of Afghan girls will never forgive us.