North Africa, West Asia: News

How the West is failing Afghan women under threat

The evacuation effort has been patchy at best – but it’s not too late to step up assistance

Susan Hutchinson
18 September 2021, 12.00am
Pakistani paramilitary soldier and Taliban fighters stand guard at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan
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Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Numerous advocates for women’s rights have been working behind the scenes for months – and more urgently since the Taliban takeover – to help human rights defenders get out of the country. But governments are doing little to help.

One striking example is reported by Ben Slater, a former British soldier, who says he helped one group of women’s rights activists to reach the border of a neighbouring country after they were unable to get into Kabul airport.

This author lobbied the Australian government on the women’s behalf. The government soon provided visas for the families with connections in Australia. Slater says others are eligible for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Scheme in the UK and sent a list, which openDemocracy has seen, of these women to authorities in London. However, Slater says the British government failed to provide the necessary paperwork for the women and children in his care. They spent two days in a border zone that was at the time out of Taliban control; their fate is currently unknown but they certainly face grave danger.

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Another case was reported in late August by Brad Blitz, a professor of international politics and policy at University College London. Blitz claims that the UK failed to evacuate 350 Afghan researchers, lawyers and activists on women’s rights, peace and security even though it had been funding their work. The Global Challenges Research Fund, for which Blitz works, had been funding the work as part of the British government’s Official Development Assistance, managed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Blitz claims that his group gave the British government a list of Afghan women’s human rights defenders with whom they had worked in mid-August. According to him, the list was sent to the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Only two people were given offers for evacuation flights. However, even they were offered no assistance to get to the airport and were unable to make it there alone. The offers also did not allow the women to bring dependents.

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“No one on the list has managed to get to Britain even though they are eligible under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Scheme,” Blitz said, adding that Poland had stepped up by evacuating 25 of the researchers, issuing visas and sending buses to help the women get to the airport in Kabul.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We will continue to do all we can to secure safe passage and deliver on our obligation to get British nationals and eligible Afghans out of the country.” The government's Afghan resettlement scheme is supposed to support Afghans who have contributed to civil society or who face a particular risk from the Taliban. openDemocracy understands that this includes activists standing up for democracy and human rights, or who could be at risk because of their gender, sexuality or religion.

The people in question, who were not provided help, fit this description.

Failures around the world

Betty Reardon, an expert on the UN Security Council’s work on women, peace and security, has been working since May to get the US government to evacuate Afghan women who are at high risk. She told the author that she had direct communication with President Joe Biden, as well as the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and other members of the UN Security Council.

At the invitation of the White House, she submitted the names and all necessary information for 100 Afghan women who needed to leave the country, expecting they would be issued visas. None heard back from any US government agency. The US Office of Global Women’s Issues had an email inbox to receive messages about Afghan women who needed to be evacuated, but emails sent by the author and Reardon to that inbox have received no reply.

In Australia, efforts have been under way to evacuate 120 women human rights defenders and their immediate families. So far, 72 have been issued visas but only 24 were evacuated before international flights closed on 31 August. Since then international flights to a limited number of destinations have resumed.

In Canada, civil society organisations have lamented their government’s lack of responsiveness to calls to help Afghan women human rights defenders. The government has also been unclear on how many evacuees it will accept.

Although Afghanistan's human rights defenders have fallen off the news agenda, most remain under threat

ِAccording to Canadian senator Marilour McPhedran: "The initial announcement by immigration minister Marco Mendicino of taking in 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan raised hopes until the government clarified that 15,000 of those spots were for Afghans already in the system, most already out of Afghanistan, some who have already been waiting for years." Thankfully, the government has now announced it will take in 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan, but the upcoming Canadian election may affect the longevity of that policy.

Where now?

For more than 20 years, Afghan women have fought hard for their rights. Women’s civic groups have spread across the country, advocating for rights, organising and training women to participate in business and politics, and holding the government and international donors accountable. The Afghan Women’s Network alone has 120 member groups, in all 34 provinces.

The UK, US and France drafted UN Security Council Resolution 2593, which calls on the Taliban to allow evacuation of Afghans who want to leave their country, provided they have the proper documents. But these countries have provided little practical help to particularly vulnerable people, even during the final stretch of the massive evacuation process.

It appears little effort was made to overcome the disadvantages women faced during the evacuation. Navigating the chaos at the airport was not an option for women with children or elderly parents under their care. The Taliban also targeted women and minorities at checkpoints on the way to the airport. Furthermore, many Afghan women often don’t have passports, which is key to getting into the airport.

Although Afghanistan's human rights defenders have fallen off the news agenda, most remain under threat. Some of the people mentioned in this story have since been killed or arrested, or have gone into hiding. Very few have been granted safe passage or asylum, while calls to prioritise the evacuation of women human rights defenders have not resulted in concrete action.

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