Look who’s defending the rights of Afghan women

 Foreign aid groups, eager to assist a hungry nation, insist on guarantees for their female Afghan staff to operate freely. The Taliban might listen.

Displaced Afghans distribute food donations at a camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 13.

Since taking power five weeks ago, the Taliban have not put gender equality high on their priorities in Afghanistan. No woman sits on the interim Cabinet, for instance. Girls are barred from high school. Yet in coming weeks as the country faces emergency levels of hunger, the Islamic group could see the rights and roles of women in a new light.

One by one, foreign aid groups with long histories of working in Afghanistan are insisting on clear guarantees for their female Afghan staff to work freely in delivering goods and services, especially to other women. From the Norwegian Refugee Council to CARE International, relief groups have set a red line for gender rights.

“If women are prevented from delivering humanitarian services, we become complicit in the entrenching of gender inequality,” says Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director of United Nations Women. For his part, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council that aid must be delivered “without ... discrimination.”

This principled stance by the humanitarian aid community reflects three decades of work to shift global thinking about women’s rights. It also reflects faith in Afghan women to insist on the rights and freedoms they enjoyed under nearly two decades of democracy.

The Taliban are definitely listening to the international community, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told The Associated Press. “Yes, there are no women yet [in the Cabinet],” he said. “But let us let the situation evolve.”

The Taliban already know they are failing. Only 5% of Afghans have enough to eat, according to the U.N. And as their forces took territory over the past year, millions of Afghans fled their homes. An estimated 80% of them are women and children.

While the Taliban may claim a legitimacy to rule by claiming to be unassailable religious scholars, their tenure could also depend on the informal consent of the Afghan people.

Besides foreign aid workers, the Taliban also need cash. Before they took power, Afghanistan thrived on about $8.5 billion a year in foreign assistance. Almost all of that has dried up. The United States has frozen $7 billion in Afghan foreign reserves held in New York.

In recent days, the U.N. has lined up $1.2 billion in donor pledges for aid to Afghans who face drought, hunger, and the pandemic. With most of those in need being women and girls, female aid workers will be essential in delivering that aid.

Both the world and Afghanistan’s roughly 40 million people have shifted on women’s rights since the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s. It will take persistent foreign insistence to shift the Taliban, too.

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