Hidden women: How European countries can help protect Afghan women’s rights

European countries need to look for the partners they made over the last 20 years and together redraw an Afghan-led strategy to protect women’s rights

epa10388802 Afghan girls from a private university celebrate their graduation in Kabul, Afghanistan, 04 January 2023. A group of 24 male and nine female students at a private university were graduated from the Faculty of Medicine on 04 January. The ruling Taliban has banned women from attending university in Afghanistan, according to an order issued on 20 December 2022. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/STRINGER
Afghan girls from a private university celebrate their graduation in Kabul, Afghanistan, 04 January 2023
Image by picture alliance / EPA | STRINGER

In almost a year and a half since the Taliban took over, Afghanistan has started on a downward spiral and a “process of self-destruction”, in the words of Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Women have disappeared from public life. They have also disappeared from European headlines. European governments need to put Afghanistan back on their agendas and make use of the allies they created in Afghanistan and beyond over the last 20 years to redraw an Afghan-led strategy to protect women’s rights.

When the Taliban took power in August 2021, they vowed to respect women’s rights “within the bounds of Islamic law.” Shortly after, young girls were temporarily banned from attending secondary school, and in March 2022, this measure became permanent. In December 2022, the Taliban banned women from universities and ordered local and international NGOs to prohibit their female employees from going to work. As a result, half a dozen foreign humanitarian groups have been suspended in the country. After decades of war, millions of widows live in Afghanistan and depend on humanitarian assistance for survival. As women can only be attended by other women, without female staff NGOs are unable to reach many desperate people living in remote areas. In temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius this winter, thousands of civilians had to survive in dreadful conditions, with little food and no heating, and without any sort of help. After visiting Afghanistan and meeting with Taliban officials in January 2023, the United Nations released a statement highlighting that Afghanistan is in great danger of famine, economic decline, and devastating poverty.

Before the withdrawal of US troops in August 2021, 75 per cent of Afghanistan’s public spending was funded by foreign grants. Since the Taliban’s return to power, many countries and organisations, including the United States and the European Union, halted their financial assistance, leaving the country in a situation of desperate need. However, stopping funding the government does not have to mean abandoning the country and its people. The West needs to assume its moral obligation to the country, and create pathways for support on the ground and, for those who want it, through international protection and asylum possibilities.

Afghanistan’s people have changed and they are fighting to uphold the rights that they won

For 20 years, the US and European countries tried to create a new country in line with western standards, without considering that its people may have a different way of understanding life. This was a chance to create a strong relationship between the West and a new Afghanistan, sharing resources, political and economic tools, and knowledge. Instead, Western countries imposed rules and norms, before retreating. But despite its return to Taliban rule, Afghanistan is not the country it was. Its people have changed and they are fighting to uphold the rights that they won. The EU needs to help them by reopening debates about the situation of Afghan women and providing humanitarian solutions.

In 2001, there were only 8,000 students enrolled in Afghan universities, none of whom were women; in 2020 there were 400,000 students, of which 110,000 were women. These generations value their education and are not willing to accept the regression of their country. After the Taliban banned girls and women from studying and working, protests erupted in Kabul and other big cities and spread all over Afghanistan, despite a brutal and violent response by the Taliban, who arrested, beat, and tortured protesters. Some Afghan men also stood in solidarity, carrying out acts of disobedience: journalists covered their faces on television, around 50 male university professors resigned, and some male students refused to sit their exams.

The EU should support these efforts, working with the allies it gained over the last 20 years, including civil society, non-governmental institutions, and neighbouring countries, to analyse the situation in the country and develop initiatives to help Afghan women. These initiatives should be led by the Afghan civil society, but require commitment and decisive action from the EU.

In May 2022, the EU External Action Service organised the second Afghan Women Leaders’ Forum with EU officials, the EU special envoy for Afghanistan, and Afghan women working in different sectors within and outside the country. Participants of the forum highlighted the importance of engaging with Afghan citizens living in the country or abroad to come up with insights that Europeans have not considered. The forum recommended exploring different models for dialogue “that will allow women to influence and play a meaningful role in the future of the country.” There are existing platforms to cover political and development processes in Afghanistan, such as the EU’s Afghanistan Peace Support Mechanism and the “platform for the voice of the people”, developed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. These should be used to foster dialogue between Afghan women and European partners. Under Taliban rule, there is no real chance for women to play a meaningful role in Afghan society, but these platforms can at least allow Afghan women to play a role in developing international strategies to address their rights. To make this happen, these initiatives must be the first of many, in which the EU listens to the voice of millions of women fighting for their rights.

European governments should also seek other partners to help develop a strategy. For example, they should work through the EU and UN Spotlight Initiative, which aims to eliminate violence against women and girls. Within the framework of this programme, in November 2022, UN Women held a meeting with civil society organisations from Afghanistan and Central Asia to discuss a joint strategy on protection from gender-based violence. The central discussion of the meeting was the creation of a Central Asian Alliance with the objective to end sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices against women. The EU should not only support such initiatives but also establish a partnership with the Central Asian Alliance to work together on a new focus for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Finally, the EU should engage with other countries in the region on these goals. Since the Taliban’s takeover, India – which has had close relations with Afghanistan in the past – has been rethinking its relationship with the country. Despite this, it has continued to deliver aid supplies, including food to the Afghan people. India has not officially recognised the Taliban as the government, but it did reopen its embassy in Afghanistan, which the Taliban considers a step towards recognising it as the legitimate regime in Afghanistan. Far from taking any step to legitimise the Taliban, and while India figures out its new relationship with Afghanistan, the EU should engage with India and its humanitarian objectives and programmes in Afghanistan and examine possibilities for a strong partnership to implement a joint strategy in the field.

The EU should cooperate with its various partners – including regional, local, and international organisations, journalists, civil society, and neighbouring countries – to elaborate a new strategy focused on addressing human rights violations and gender-based violence in Afghanistan, including the right of women to education or medical services, to work, to walk alone in the streets, and to decide for themselves whether to cover their faces. Firstly, they should focus on raising awareness among the Afghan population of women’s rights and conditions. Informed by their partners, the EU should then work to provide tangible solutions, such as financial support programmes for widows or single mothers, ways to deliver aid to families without resources, or a strategic technology initiative – in line with the EU initiative of a satellite-based connectivity system – to provide educational resources to girls and young women that can function despite possible internet censorship by the government. Afghan men can also play a crucial role in this process, standing up in support of women’s rights and putting pressure on the government, as some already have.  

European countries can do much more than they think. By engaging with their allies in Afghan civil society and neighbouring countries – including India and the future Central Asian Alliance – that are already working on finding solutions, sending humanitarian aid to the borders for those trying to flee, and developing pathways for international protection and asylum requests, the EU can redraw a new strategy to help women in Afghanistan.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Communications Officer

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