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How the World Can Help Afghan Women Now

Teenage girls forced to become child brides and laborers. Food insecurity affecting millions. Public executions and floggings. In the two years since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, 20 years of progress—especially for women and girls—has been systematically erased.

Yet even as international observers lament the Taliban’s horrific abuses and broken promises, some argue that the only path forward is to recognize the group. This argument posits that without formally recognizing the Taliban, the international community cannot deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance, provide education and other social welfare programs, and receive accurate updates from Afghans inside the country. Under this view, formal relations would grant the international community much-needed influence on an insular and hostile regime.

The fact is international agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and various countries and bodies including the United Kingdom, India, and the European Union have already engaged in talks with the Taliban to secure humanitarian access and keep vital programs running. Recognition would become a dangerous bargaining chip for the Taliban and would in effect reward them for what they should be doing in the first place. The Taliban crave international legitimacy, and recognition would grant it—entitling them to benefits like permanent representation at the United Nations and leaving the international community with little leverage to incentivize the Taliban to reverse edicts and restore women’s and girls’ rights. However, principled engagement is not interchangeable with recognition or normalization and can be done without further validating the Taliban regime.

Afghan women and girls have repeatedly affirmed the importance of withholding formal recognition of the Taliban, a group unwavering in their assault on women’s fundamental rights. At a great risk of punishment and threats to families, these women have engaged in protests in Kabul, advocated to international agencies, and spoken before the U.S. Congress. They have offered alternatives that have too often seemed to fall on deaf ears.

We know that listening to women’s recommendations will be critical to ensuring a peaceful, inclusive, and stable Afghanistan. While Afghan women have diverse opinions on how to best secure their rights and security, we seek to underscore some of the frequent calls made by Afghan women in international forums, in public, and in private discussions.

First, engagement should be guided by human rights principles and must be viewed as distinct from formal recognition. In the current order, engagement with the Taliban is often ad hoc and murky—raising valid concerns and skepticism from many both inside and outside the country who feel that the very nature of such engagements undermines their efforts to hold the Taliban accountable for their abuses.

Going forward, countries and organizations should explicitly state that talks, consultations, and/or correspondence with the Taliban by no means constitute official recognition. As the international community continues to negotiate for access in Afghanistan, it must commit to principled engagement, described by Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr as interactions that minimize normalization and legitimization while carefully assessing the costs and benefits of the interactions.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), given its credibility with the Taliban, and Muslim-majority states, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that have publicly condemned the group’s use of religious justification for excluding women, should take the lead in these discussions with the Taliban. All parties should demonstrate that human rights are nonnegotiable, explicitly integrating human rights concerns into every conversation and outlining clear consequences for violations. As various delegations coordinate discussions on Afghanistan and with the Taliban, they should include participants who reflect Afghanistan’s religious and ethnic pluralism and reject the Taliban’s radical interpretation of Islam. Afghan women must participate on all topics, not just “women’s issues,” and should be consulted as policy is constructed.

Second, we must counter radical Taliban ideology by defending Afghanistan’s shrinking civic space. The Taliban are deeply committed to their ideology: even criticism from the OIC has not prompted policy reversals. As the Taliban entrench their extreme interpretation of Islam, it is critical that dissenting Afghan civil society organizations, cultural activists, and academics continue their work. Existing support for human rights organizations and NGOs must be maintained and expanded. Extensive, flexible funding for all efforts that preserve the pluralistic nature of Afghan life will help Afghan human rights defenders continue documenting abuses and protecting targeted groups, despite Taliban crackdowns. When civil society organizations are strengthened with financial and political support, their ability to negotiate with the authorities grows, and combined with regional and international pressure, they can create more possibilities for change on the ground.

Third, we must end a cycle of impunity by recognizing and prosecuting the Taliban’s crimes. The deprivation of Afghan women’s fundamental rights—including their rights to education, equality, dignity, bodily autonomy, security, employment, political representation, and cultural participation—is a crime against humanity and violation of numerous international treaties to which Afghanistan is a party, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.N. Human Rights Council has affirmed this, concluding in a recent report that the situation in Afghanistan “constitutes gender persecution and an institutionalized framework of gender apartheid.” The first step toward accountability is for the United States and other U.N. member states to officially recognize that Taliban policies constitute gender persecution and gender apartheid through a U.N. General Assembly or U.N. Security Council resolution. This, in tandem with the existing sanctions, would heighten pressure on the authorities by jeopardizing their ability to travel and receive U.N. credentials, and expose them to renewed condemnation and monitoring.

Fourth, we must consult and convene diverse groups of Afghans, and especially Afghan women, when creating policy. Too often, policy is created either without Afghans entirely or without Afghan women. Input from the Afghan people and consensus-building are foundational to countering the Taliban and effective policymaking. International partners should elevate and provide platforms for diverse intra-Afghan dialogue, and all policy discussions on Afghanistan should include Afghans with a wide range of perspectives and ethnic backgrounds, particularly women. Afghan counterparts and international partners can work together to address ongoing humanitarian, economic, and political crises, ensuring that policies do not benefit the Taliban.

After two years of policy reversals, many in the international community have lost hope—with some walking away from Afghanistan entirely. Others have rationalized working with the Taliban in a manner that adopts a willful ignorance toward the country’s “internal issues.” This would give the Taliban exactly what they want—legitimacy and little incentive to reverse harmful policies—at the expense of Afghan women and girls, a group that, despite all odds, has not lost hope. If our policy is shaped by Afghan women’s recommendations and our commitments to civil society, accountability, and inclusivity, we will signal to the Taliban that no amount of time will weaken our resolve to restore the rights of Afghan women and girls.

On this somber anniversary, we want to share an important message: Let’s not allow anyone to convince us that there is nothing we can do when Afghan women and girls are risking their lives to reclaim their fundamental rights. We must not let them down.

By Shaharzad Akbar, Rawadari’s executive director and the former chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Melanne Verveer, the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. This Article has also earlier been appeared in the Foreign Policy Online Portal.

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