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Navigating Afghanistan’s Future: The UN Doha Talks and the Cost of Ignoring Women’s Participation

Written by Emily McLeish

As the world watched closely, the UN-led conference in Doha, held on June 30 and July 1, brought together international stakeholders and representatives from the Afghan de facto authorities (DFA) to discuss the future of Afghanistan. This high-stakes meeting aimed to address pressing issues such as strategies to combat Afghanistan's extensive opium trade, which has long fuelled conflict and instability, addressing the environmental challenges that exacerbate the country's humanitarian crises and banking reforms in an effort to stabilise Afghanistan's economy and integrate it into the global financial system.

Image: five-member Afghan Taliban delegation in Doha. Photo by Tahir Khan Published June 30, 2024

However, this conference has drawn significant criticism for its glaring omission: the exclusion of women from the negotiation table. Since the Taliban's return to power, human rights issues, particularly women's rights, have been severely curtailed, and the UN's decision not to include women in the talks starkly contrasts its commitments under UNSC Resolution 1325.

Since the Taliban's takeover in August 2021, the rights and freedoms of women in Afghanistan have dramatically deteriorated. The Taliban initially promised a more moderate rule compared to their previous regime in the 1990s, but the reality has proven otherwise.

“We are going to allow women to study and work within our framework. Women are going to be very active in our society.”

- Zabihullah Mujahid Taliban spokesperson. August 15, 2021

The Taliban have systematically enforced rules and policies that severely restrict the fundamental rights of women and girls. As a result, Afghanistan ranks last on the Women, Peace, and Security index (1). This alarming decline in women's rights has been termed "gender apartheid," highlighting the institutionalised separation and unequal treatment of individuals based on gender. In Afghanistan, this manifests through the legal and social restrictions imposed by the Taliban, deeply entrenching gender-based discrimination.

Among the key changes imposed by the Taliban is the ban on girls' secondary education and the closing of schools to female students beyond the sixth grade. This move has deprived 1.5 million girls of their right to education and a brighter future.

This systematic exclusion is not only a blatant violation of their right to education, but also results in dwindling opportunities and deteriorating mental health”. 

-Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director.

This ban on women’s education will inevitably lead to severe long-term consequences. The 2024 UN Afghanistan gender country profile reported a 25 per cent increase in child marriage and a 45 per cent increase in early childbearing rates, which is estimated to result in a 50% increased risk of maternal mortality (2). These statistics are deeply concerning. Child marriage perpetuates cycles of poverty, and gender-based violence, exposing girls to significant health risks. Organizations such as Zonta International, are actively working to combat these issues. Zonta International, dedicated to empowering women and advocating for their rights, collaborates with UNICEF to implement programs that aim to end child marriage and promote education for girls. The rise in child marriage and early childbearing among Afghan women underscores the urgency of these initiatives and Zonta’s mission to ensure that every girl has the opportunity to learn and thrive.

Employment and leadership have also been severely impacted since the Taliban’s takeover. Women have been largely excluded from the workforce, particularly in government jobs and many private sector roles. In September 2021, merely one month after the Taliban takeover of Kabul marked the dissolution of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. One year later, in August 2022, women employees of the Ministry of Finance were directed to send a male relative to take their jobs (3).

Afghan women wearing Burqa. Photo: Amber Clay. Pixabay

Public spaces and amenities, such as parks, have been segregated by gender, with severe limitations on women's freedom of movement. In December 2021, authorities in most Afghan provinces issued regulations forbidding women from travelling more than 77 km without a mahram (male relative or chaperone) (2,3). By March 2022, women were mandated to wear a burqa or practice "proper hijab" and were discouraged from leaving their homes without a valid reason (2,3). These restrictions have severe consequences; they not only infringe on women's freedom of movement but also pose significant challenges for those needing medical care. The requirement for a male escort can delay or entirely prevent visits to clinics and hospitals, particularly in emergencies. This restriction is especially detrimental to women in rural areas, where healthcare facilities are sparse, and distances are greater. In some provinces, women are completely prohibited from attending health centres. Mawlawi Abdulhai Omar, head of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Kandahar, issued a verbal directive to all provincial departments to ban girls and women from visiting health centres and cemeteries (3).

“women/girls wear makeup when they go to these places and pretend they are ill … Anyone whose daughter or sister is like this, if she has a brother, arrest her brother. If she has a father, punish her father and punish him for not correcting her daughter.”

-Mawlawi Abdulhai Omar, verbal message

Violence against Afghan women has also sharply increased since the Taliban’s return to power. The dismantlement of essential services for survivors of gender-based violence has exacerbated their plight. Shelters, legal aid, and counselling services for women and girls have been shut down or severely restricted, leaving victims with little to no support. Women in prisons often face horrific abuses, including torture and sexual assault, with some subjected to forced abortions (4,5). This widespread violence and the absence of protective services have left many women and girls in desperate and dangerous situations, unable to seek justice or safety.

UNSC Resolution 1325: A Forgotten Promise?

Adopted in 2000, UNSC Resolution 1325 calls for the full participation of women in peace processes and international negotiations (6). It recognises the crucial role women play in maintaining peace and security and seeks to ensure their voices are heard in decision-making arenas.

By excluding women from the Doha talks, the UN not only undermines this resolution but also sends a disheartening message to Afghan women, who have faced increased oppression under the Taliban's rule. Women have been barred from most forms of public life, including work and education, making their exclusion from such an important conference even more concerning.

The decision to side-line women's voices could have far-reaching implications. By not insisting on women's participation, the UN may inadvertently legitimise the Taliban's gender-discriminatory policies. Additionally, the UN's stance might erode trust among Afghan women and global advocates for gender equality, who look to international bodies to uphold human rights standards.

"Excluding women risks legitimising the Taliban's abuses and triggering irreparable harm to the U.N.'s credibility as an advocate for women's rights and women's meaningful participation."

-Tirana Hassan, executive director at Human Rights Watch

Furthermore, there is increasing concern that the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan may catalyse the spread of “Talibanization,” potentially inspiring other fundamentalist groups to implement similarly oppressive policies against women. The UN's decision to exclude women's participation in the June conference in Doha has profound implications for women's rights, coinciding with a troubling trend of eroding women's rights worldwide. This trend threatens to undo decades of progress in women's rights and gender equality and reflects a notably insufficient response from international leaders.

While the exclusion of women from the Doha talks is deeply troubling, it should be noted that On Tuesday, the 2nd of July, the UN held a close-door meeting with Afghan women to discuss ongoing women's rights in the country (7). However, many Afghan women's rights activists argue that this effort is too little, too late.

Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Under-Secretary-General. Photo: EPA-EFE

Nevertheless, the UN talks with the Taliban may pave the way for future dialogues with the DFA, where women's rights can be addressed more comprehensively. Opening channels of communication offers the potential for negotiating terms that could eventually lead to improvements in the status and rights of women in Afghanistan. Following the Taliban's takeover in 2021, Afghanistan's economic structure underwent significant changes. The sudden shift in power led to the imposition of international sanctions, the freezing of Afghan assets abroad, and restrictions on international aid and financial transactions. These actions resulted in widespread unemployment and poverty, severely disrupting the country's financial systems. Women, who already faced limited economic opportunities and exclusion from many forms of employment, were disproportionately affected.

Addressing Afghanistan's pressing economic issues could indirectly benefit women by alleviating some of the financial burdens that disproportionately impact them. However, it is crucial that women participate in these discussions to ensure that their needs and rights are adequately represented and protected.

The Zonta club of Perth is dedicated to advocating for the provision of women’s rights and ensuring their voices are heard in all facets of society. By championing women's education, leadership and economic empowerment, Zonta aims to create a world where women and girls can thrive, free from discrimination and violence. Their unwavering commitment underscores the need for inclusive dialogues that genuinely address the rights and opportunities for women in Afghanistan and beyond.



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