Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Afghan women’s rights defenders gravely at risk

Aug 20, 2021 | Commentary, Equality, Education, Power, Feature

Written by Susan Hutchinson

All week, civil society organisations have been frantically trying to pull together a list of Afghan women’s human rights defenders they’ve worked with over the past decades to try and get the Australian government to prioritise them as evacuees on military flights out of Kabul.

Australia has spent a billion dollars in aid in Afghanistan in the last 20 years. One worthy priority of that aid has been women’s rights, education and economic development. Eleven Australian NGOs work in the country, five of whom had at least a partial focus on women’s empowerment or gender equality in their work.

One of the three current pillars of the Australian Government’s aid program still focuses on gender equality, while the other two focus on COVID-19. But the government has failed to specify any of the highest risk groups of individuals, including women, human rights defenders, or minorities like Hazaras that will likely face ethnic cleansing or genocide in their response. Neither the Prime Minister, nor the Department of Home Affairs have identified these vulnerabilities in their statements of priorities.

Afghan women have fought for their own rights for twenty years. According to the Afghan Women’s Network, there has been a huge decline in the maternal mortality rate, from 1600 to 460 per 100,000 women. Women’s civic groups have spread all over the country, advocating women’s rights, organising and training women to take part in business and in politics, holding the government and international donors accountable – both collectively and independently. The Afghan Women’s Network alone has 120 women groups, from all 34 provinces, as members.

But right now, the Taliban are knocking on doors all across the country looking for those who have been working against their ideology. While the Taliban’s education spokesperson was telling the BBC that women would be allowed to continue their education in accordance with Sharia law, fighters in Herat were turning female students away from the university.

In the past two days, the Taliban closed and burned to the ground at least one women’s shelter, and many organisations who help other vulnerable women have sent those in their care into a rotational system of hiding. People who were once considered as having good jobs, with an NGO now find themselves in the greatest risk, fleeing for their lives. These women may have only hours to live. Australia can help at least some of them before they lose their heads or are stoned to death.

A list of women’s human rights defenders will contain some of the highest risk individuals in Afghanistan. Restricting that list to only those who’ve worked with Australian organisations should narrow the list down sufficiently for the government to consider helping, and prioritising assistance for these incredibly vulnerable individuals.

Women’s human rights defenders take all forms and guises. They include young people affiliated with universities who have advocated for gender equality and democracy; widows who care for sick girls and help them study; men who work in small communities to support women’s equal participation; and people from minority groups who stand firm against the Taliban to show women and men there is a better way.

The situation at the airport in Kabul continues to be grave. Today, the Taliban shot two women to try to control the crowds. At present, the government is only accepting people onto Australian evacuation flights who have approved visas. This is obviously creating quite a problem for those with legitimate claims for sanctuary and need for evacuation.

In previous evacuations, those at risk have been taken to a third location until migration paperwork can be dealt with. For Iraq, this was Greece. In this case, India would work, or an extension of the existing landing arrangement with the UAE. But at present, the government has failed to allow for a suitable evacuation plan. If this doesn’t change, the situation for these women will continue to be further complicated by the need for significantly expedited visa applications and approvals.

In a recent interview with TRT World news, Mahbooba Seraj, from the Afghan Women’s Network, said to those world leaders who cut and run “shame on you for what you did to Afghanistan. Why did you have to do what you did?… Are you using all of us? Are we being just pawns in your hands? Is that what it is? I don’t understand.” She pointed the finger firmly at the men in power who make decisions that affect women working to build communities. Moving from eloquent disdain to heartbreak, she said “They are destroying something that we worked so hard for. What is happening in Afghanistan today is going to put this country back 200 years.”

The Prime Minister continues to show his inability to consider how harsh the world is to women. But he absolutely must ensure his government prioritise the evacuation of Afghan women’s human rights defenders who have worked so hard, risking so much, and now face the worst possible consequences for trying to build their nation, while working in partnership with Australian organisations.

Feature image: Afghan Women Queue at World Food Programme Distribution Point, Herat, Afghanistan. June 2012. Picture: United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Susan Hutchinson is the Executive Director of Azadi-e Zan, a new NGO helping Afghan women’s rights defenders since the fall of Kabul. She lives with a chronic disabling illness. Before becoming ill she was the Civil-Military Advisor for the Australian Council for International Development. Susan continues to focus her energy on women’s experiences of conflict and is currently undertaking a PhD on women, peace and security at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School.

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