Afghanistan: The Taliban Restrict Women’s Rights, Worsening the Humanitarian Crisis
Afghanistan: The Taliban Restrict Women’s Rights, Worsening the Humanitarian Crisis
Commentary / Asia 9 minutes

Afghanistan: The Taliban Restrict Women’s Rights, Worsening the Humanitarian Crisis

The Taliban seem determined to isolate the country from the world, which can only lead to greater misery for Afghans. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group explains how the EU and its member states can help address the challenges Afghanistan faces.

Afghanistan started 2023 facing less armed violence than it has in many years, but nevertheless in a state of crisis. Two thirds of Afghans need humanitarian aid, and with the stricken economy incapable of supporting the majority of the population, threats of famine and civil disorder remain on the horizon. A year and a half after the Taliban came to power, they continue to oppress women, journalists and political activists and to abuse the local population in areas where anti-Taliban resistance has taken up arms. Rolling back women’s rights has been a central focus for the Taliban as they gradually push girls and women out of education, employment and other activities in public spaces. Major aid agencies responded to the Taliban’s ban on NGOs employing female Afghan staff by pausing assistance, partially interrupting one of the world’s largest humanitarian operations in the middle of winter, even as half the population suffers from severe food insecurity. Donors, distracted by other crises and horrified by the Taliban’s misogyny, threaten a reduction in aid for Afghanistan. Taliban leaders’ determination to sequester the country from the world seems destined to bring greater misery to the Afghan people.

The European Union (EU) and its member states can help address this complex set of challenges by:

  • Continuing to respond generously to appeals for humanitarian assistance. Donors, including the EU, gave billions of dollars in 2022 in response to the humanitarian crisis that followed the Taliban’s takeover in the previous year. Few of the economic drivers that led to that emergency have been addressed, which means that Afghans’ immediate need for relief remains enormous.
  • Supporting principled aid delivery. As a major donor well respected in Kabul, the EU should support the aid agencies it funds in upholding the principles of impartial, neutral and independent aid delivery, as well as advocate on their behalf when necessary. That requires injecting flexibility into its funding mechanisms to take account of the difficult choices aid workers make in response to worsening Taliban interference – including, at times, suspending operations.
  • Addressing the causes of the disaster. The EU should cooperate with other donors, multilateral institutions and, unavoidably, the Taliban to work toward Afghanistan’s economic stabilisation. Disgust with the Taliban’s policies and shrinking aid budgets will constrain options, but work must continue to restore central banking, electrical grids, irrigation systems and other public goods. EU institutions have put forward a concrete proposal to this effect. Member states should support it. Moreover, the Taliban’s horrific subjugation of women should not provoke reprisals from outside powers that exacerbate their suffering; instead, the EU and other donors should adopt strategies aimed at fostering a more inclusive and open society over the long term.
  • Opening routes for Afghan migrants. In line with its demand that theTaliban let Afghans who wish to leave the country go abroad, the EU and its member states should ensure that safe and regular pathways for protection in Europe are available to Afghans at risk and that asylum claims are swiftly approved. Subsidiary protection should be granted where refugee status is not provided. At a minimum, member states should follow the latest Country Guidance of the EU Agency for Asylum, which states that women and girls are in general at risk of persecution and hence eligible for refugee status. Member states should also offer scholarships to Afghan women for study abroad.
First grade students at Zarghona high school are studying while older students remain absent, waiting on the Taliban's announcement to resume their education. October 2021. Stefanie Glinski

A Growing Humanitarian Crisis

After four decades of war, the level of armed violence in Afghanistan dropped off significantly after the Taliban takeover in 2021, even if the country is not fully at peace. According to UN estimates, the number of Afghans forced to flee their homes in the fourteen months after the Taliban seized power declined by 93 per cent compared to the fourteen months prior. Other indicators also show reduced violence compared with the pre-2021 period. By crushing most opposition, sometimes with extrajudicial killings and other abuses in restive districts, the Taliban gained a greater degree of control of Afghanistan than any group has attained in decades. Still, the Taliban are fighting two small insurgencies: northern factions (primarily supporters of the previous government) and the local branch of the Islamic State (mostly in eastern provinces).

The country is also facing both humanitarian and human rights crises. Even before the Taliban took over, Afghanistan’s economy was fragile, its food supplies decimated by years of drought. But things quickly went from bad to worse. More than 20 per cent of the Afghan economy disappeared in the early months of Taliban rule, as donors cut development funding, foreign countries froze state assets, investor confidence plummeted, and Western sanctions and banking restrictions led to economic isolation. Resolving these problems would require cooperation between the Taliban and donors, which has proven increasingly difficult as the Taliban goes about installing one of the world’s most repressive regimes. It has barred girls and women from most schools and universities, shut women out of many government jobs and imposed rules that limited women’s participation in public life. In December 2022, the Taliban banned female Afghan aid workers, forcing humanitarian agencies to restrict operations and prompting Western donors to reconsider their already limited engagement with Afghanistan.

Those responsible for these obscurantist policies are the Taliban leaders based in Kandahar, who seem to crave isolation for themselves and the entire Afghan population. This small group, which very few people have access to, will make it harder and harder for international actors to work in Afghanistan. The Taliban movement has long been divided between those who idealise the group’s draconian governance in the 1990s and others who do not; in recent months, the conservatives have gained the upper hand and seem prepared to enforce harsh rules – despite protests from the rest of the world, including many Muslim countries.

As the hardliners tighten their grip, the Afghan people are suffering for it. The UN estimates that two thirds of the population, or 28 million people, will need assistance in 2023, up from 24 million in 2022. The humanitarian crisis disproportionately hurts girls and women, as the burdens of malnutrition and disease fall more heavily on girls than boys; rising poverty increases the number of child brides married for dowries; and restrictions on basic services affect women in dangerous ways, particularly during childbirth.

Responding to the Crisis

At $4.6 billion, the 2023 UN humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan is the world’s largest. The EU and its member states, which provided generous humanitarian assistance in 2022, should keep up high levels of support to match the scale of the human needs in Afghanistan. In so doing, they should be guided first and foremost by humanitarian considerations, but there is also a strategic logic to fostering stability in Afghanistan and the wider region. A downward spiral in Afghanistan could spell greater migration and disorder in the region. There is also an issue of responsibility: the EU and its member states played a role in shaping Afghanistan’s current conditions through their participation in the recently concluded NATO military intervention and their support for sanctions and other measures intended to isolate the Taliban. More generally, one of the most pressing concerns for Afghan farmers is the changing climate, another problem in which Europe played a major role (as together with other rich parts of the world it generated half the planet-warming emissions in the last 170 years). Whatever their degree of responsibility, EU donors still have many strong reasons to help ameliorate the crisis, despite their growing reluctance to stay engaged.

As one of the few donors with staff in Kabul, the EU also has an important role to play in supporting humanitarian actors as they confront the Taliban’s policies. The tension between the humanitarian imperative of saving lives and the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence is not unique to Afghanistan, but aid workers in Afghanistan feel it especially acutely. Taliban restrictions, particularly on women aid workers, are forcing staff to decide whether they will make compromises to keep delivering assistance or let Afghans suffer without it. Benefiting from the diplomatic skills of the EU delegation in Kabul, the EU should remain steadfast in backing aid agencies as they navigate Taliban efforts to disrupt aid flows, while being more flexible with Brussels’ own regulations for its on-the-ground partners. In places where the Taliban block female aid workers, for example, the EU and member states should make clear to NGOs that they can pause their programming to negotiate with the regime for better access, without fear that donors will cut their budgets because they have not spent the money as promised. Humanitarian workers need political room for manoeuvre, allowing for quick responses in the field to the Taliban’s worsening behaviour – and workarounds that best serve Afghans.

The aforementioned actions are tangible ways of improving the lives of Afghans in the short term. Doing so should remain the priority, while the EU continues long-term activities in support of women’s rights and Afghans’ other needs, including peace and prosperity. For all the horrors of Taliban rule, there is no realistic way to replace the movement or force a wholesale change in their regime’s policy. Indeed, outside condemnation has often been met by an unfortunate further entrenchment of hardline positions. European and other Western governments have for the most part sensibly accepted this reality. That said, a small minority of Western officials have contemplated support for anti-Taliban armed factions, on the theory that a desperate population and a well-backed insurgency could overthrow the regime. Such a scenario is far-fetched and would risk throwing the country back into civil war and making the humanitarian crisis even worse.

Afghans’ only escape from life-threatening poverty lies in the country’s economic recovery.

Beyond the humanitarian support it should provide, some of the decisions taken by the EU, member states and other international actors in 2023 will have far-reaching consequences. Afghans’ only escape from life-threatening poverty lies in the country’s economic recovery, which is now impeded by international isolation of the regime and unwillingness to make even modest investments in development projects such as electrical grids, irrigation systems and regional connectivity.

To lay the groundwork for an eventual end to the crisis, EU institutions should press ahead in the coming months with the “deepened and enhanced” aid strategy they proposed to member states’ foreign ministers in November 2022, broadening the scope of assistance to Afghanistan. A more comprehensive set of interventions could, for example, help address the fast-growing need for climate adaptation in agriculture, reducing the impact of floods and droughts by building water infrastructure. The EU could also play a role in shoring up pillars of macro-economic management, including rehabilitating and recapitalising the central bank, especially as European banks hold some of its frozen assets. In some cases, modest investments could finish work that was abandoned when the Taliban took over in 2021: donors have already spent billions of euros on various development projects, many of them more than 80 per cent complete. Such efforts would help address the drivers of Afghan economic woes, reducing the size of future calls for emergency aid, which are already becoming unmanageable as other crises cry out for attention.

Finally, the EU and member states should do more to facilitate what they demanded in 2021: the safe, secure and orderly departure of Afghans seeking to leave the country. The EU and other donors spent billions over decades to support a new generation of Afghans, especially in cities. Many of these people reject the Taliban’s ideology; faced with an increasingly despotic regime, they have a well-founded fear of persecution. The latest Country Guidance from the EU Agency for Asylum states clearly that women and girls are in general at risk of persecution and hence eligible for refugee status. EU member states should ensure swift and fair access to asylum for those who come to Europe and consider granting subsidiary protection where refugee status is not provided. European capitals should also consider other routes for safe and legal migration, at the very least for those most at risk: for example, as part of efforts to support female education, the EU could offer the tens of thousands of Afghan women now expelled from universities scholarships to continue studies outside the country. Such assistance would help preserve decades of effort by the EU and its allies to support Afghan women in shaping their futures.

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