Viewpoint: India must prioritize asylum to most vulnerable in Afghanistan: girls, women

A group of women hold a street protest calling on the Taliban to protect their rights, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021 in this still image taken from video dated August 17, 2021. Shamshad News/via REUTERS

The Taliban past record of its treatment of women and girls needs no recitation. The purpose of writing this piece hence is as follows:

First, to review the recent statements of Taliban spokespersons on women’s position and rights and then point to the continued wide divergence between their words and deeds, as per current press reports on wide-spread incidents of their reverting back to their old ways

Second, to provide an overview of the deep-seated fear of Afghan women inside Afghanistan and apprehensions of Afghan NGOs and to offer suggestions for bringing international pressure on the Taliban,

Third, to examine recent statements of the leadership in US, other Western countries and of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and then to make suggestions as per subject-line above; and in the case of India, to urge the Indian Govt. to immediately work out an action plan for their rehabilitation, soon upon their arrival.

And lastly as an activist I am coordinating with the heads of NGOs in the US working on women in Afghanistan, to promote some of the aforesaid suggestions—if they agree–through a signature campaign

1.Recent statements of Taliban spokespersons

Taliban officials are trying to put up a moderate face, by reassuring women that things will be different this time around. On Aug 15, spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told CNN, that Taliban policies regarding the education for girls and women is clear and that women can continue education from primary to higher education. At a news conference in Kabul on Aug.17, a senior spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said, “The Taliban have encouraged women to return to work..we assure that there will be no violence against women…No prejudice against women will be allowed, but the Islamic values are our framework….women could participate in society ,within the bounds of Islamic law.”

So this is where the catch is –all ongoing and future incidents of Taliban reprisals would be legitimized based on alleged transgressions of the TALIBAN interpretation of Islamic law; and the Taliban double-speak too has already kicked in, as is evident from several recently reported incidents of the Taliban reverting back to its old ways.

  1. Deep-seated fear of Afghan women; apprehensions of Afghan NGOs and officials; possible way out, as per a US NSC report

In view of the above, it is only natural for Afghan women, to disbelieve the officially changed Taliban position, given the caveats, and to fear a throwback to the past, which many have already begun to experience, as per detailed recent press reports. This is also validated by the following excerpts –full text accessed by me online– from the US The National Intelligence Council , Report no SOCM 2021-04038-A“Afghanistan: Women’s Economic, Political, Social Status Driven by Cultural Norms” of April 2,2021, some of which was covered by CNN in its May 5 2021 reporting.  As per the text “Since the current peace process started in 2019, Taliban officials have issued statements opposing “alien-culture clothes worn by women” and have accused women’s rights advocates of promoting immorality, indecency, and non-Islamic culture.” The CNN report adds: “Bipartisan lawmakers, activists and women on the Afghan government negotiating team have expressed concern that gains could be undercut, especially if the withdrawal is completed without a political settlement in place,” which is what we are now witnessing now.

So as is widely agreed the only way left is for the US –with a much reduced negotiating strength now–and the international community, along with participants in the resumed Doha-talks, after the fall of Kabul, to bring international pressure upon the Taliban in all possible forums, along the lines suggested in the NSC report of April 2: “If the Taliban were again Afghanistan’s dominant power, we assess that any prospect for moderating the group’s policies toward women …International pressure could play a reinforcing role… The Taliban’s desires for foreign aid and legitimacy might marginally moderate its conduct over time.”

Hence many of the states yet to recognize the Taliban could set this as one of their preconditions i.e. to hold Taliban officials accountable to minimally acceptable, human-rights -based international norms for women, by spelling these out, based on a consensus of key stakeholders including Women NGOs. As per U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price “the United States is in “constructive” talks with the Taliban in both Kabul and Doha, to “ensure smooth evacuations …and reach a political settlement to the conflict.” And should the Taliban not come around, the US could still wield its economic might through behind the scenes threat of resuming economic sanctions on the Taliban, which it was to have lifted as per the Feb 2020 Doha deal with the Taliban.

  1. Recent statements of world leaders / states on asylum to the Afghan refugees; suggestions to prioritize women and girls

As regards the West, so far US has said it’s looking to take in 30,000 Afghan refugees, while Canada has said it will resettle 20,000. As per the BBC, UK is in the process of drafting plans to take in refugees upto around 20,000. Most of the EU states–who had been in the reverse gear of deporting illegal Afghans—have agreed to halt this. As for its immediate neighbors, while Pakistan had said in June, that it would seal its borders in the event of a Taliban takeover, Iran announced it would set up camps to provide temporary refuge to Afghan refugees in three border provinces. India announced Aug. 17 a new category of “electronic visas to fast-track applications of Afghans who are willing to come to India, without putting a number as yet.

However, what is needed urgently is for all the asylum-granting countries to immediately prioritize by giving asylum to the most vulnerable in Afghanistan under Taliban i.e., Girls and Women, along with a time-bound action plan, not done by any of them as yet. For example, the National Organization for Women (NOW)—co-founded by the legendary Betty Friedan – has called on the Biden Administration to “immediately expand the refugee program for Afghan women and children seeking asylum, with more U.S. charter flights and support for NGOs in the region working to bring women and girls out of the country. NOW will continue to press U.S. leaders to stand by their commitment to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan.” Let us hope more NGOs in the US join hands and consider starting a signature campaign, and that NGOs in other countries too follow suit.

And in the case of India, I would urge the Ministry of Women and Child (WCD) and the National Commission for Women (NCW)—of which I was the executive head in the late 90s –to work out at the earliest, an action plan with the help of NGOs to provide vocational education, impart training in job-skills, hold workshops on women’s empowerment etc. and offer free education to Afghan women and girls.

NIsha Sahai Achuthan Photo: Linkedin

Nisha Sahai Achuthan, Ph. D is a retired Indian Administrative officer and former Member Secretary of the National Commission for Women, Govt.of India






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