U.N. Commitment to Ending Gender Apartheid Should Not Overlook Taliban Violations

Have women’s rights taken a backseat to other concerns in Afghanistan? 

Dozens of members of Toronto’s Afghan community held a protest at Queens Park in Toronto on Aug 13, 2023. According to the demonstrators, the Taliban regime is brutalizing women in Afghanistan. (Sayed Najafizada / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The U.N. Security Council released an independent assessment last month on Afghanistan, led by Turkish diplomat Feridun Sinirlioğlu, appointed by the U.N. secretary-general. The objective was to create “forward-looking recommendations for an integrated and coherent approach” to address the country’s current challenges.

In August 2021, the Taliban militarily took power and overthrew the existing democratically-elected government; since then, the country has been undergoing a widespread humanitarian and economic crisis, in which 15 million are experiencing food insecurity, and women are living in an apartheid state. Since the takeover, the Taliban has been acting as the governors of the state, imposing harsh edicts and orders, severely restricting the lives of all women in the country—despite nearly no international acceptance. Yet, in this report, there is no mention of the Taliban by name. Instead, the authors elect to refer to them as the “de facto authorities,” in hopes of separating the reputation of the destructive Taliban from the ruling organization they are alluding to. 

Following its release, the U.N. assessment has garnered mixed reactions from Afghanistan experts, especially Afghan women and allies, many of whom were perplexed by the change in the U.N. language used to describe the situation in Afghanistan. The assessment uses some language that mitigates the Taliban’s responsibility, awarding praise to the so-called “progress” the Taliban has made. Although it describes the issue of women’s rights critically, it does not make any recommendations concerning women’s rights—except to say the current system violates the U.N. Convention to Eliminate Sex Discrimination. Incredibly vague phrasing sums up the overall message of the report. 

Recommendations observed surface-level issues in Afghanistan that have been recorded for the past two and a half years. While it’s understandable that the authors needed to compromise with and appease all 15 members of the Security Council, the disturbing reality is that it glosses over much of the facts and reality—specifically on the issues of human rights, security and the economy. Some Afghan women even view it as a step towards normalizing relations with the Taliban, fearing eventually recognition of the Taliban as the official authorities of Afghanistan, despite their gross violations and incompetencies in providing a functional government that benefits the people of Afghanistan.

In the assessment, the authors mention the Taliban’s gender apartheid policies against women and girls only twice. The fact that women and girls are still prohibited from receiving an education, being employed, or participating in any type of public life, would suggest the urgency of the issues and that it should not be treated as a minor issue. This begs the question for the international community: Has the issue of women’s rights taken a backseat to other concerns in Afghanistan? 

The U.N. report cites “contravention” of Afghanistan’s obligations under human rights frameworks, such as the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). While acknowledging the Taliban violations of international obligations, it also glosses over the severe mental, financial and social impacts women have endured since 2021 and minimizes how embedded systemic gender discrimination is in the current Taliban regime. 

Recommendations within the report repeat long-established stances regarding the international community’s position—for example, asserting that the basic rights of women and girls and their role and space in society “must be respected.” In such contexts, respect comes with the obligation to implement policies that facilitate and guarantee rights, opportunities and freedoms to half the society.

From day one, the Taliban regime has operated in the opposite direction—systematically eliminating every right and freedom from Afghan women and girls. The ambiguity on this issue does little to advance the discourse surrounding the current situation of women in Afghanistan’s social and political life. Instead, it eases political pressure off the Taliban, so that eventual recognition is possible without being contingent on the observance of human rights and women’s rights.

Through the assessment, the language used to describe the Taliban dramatically eases the harshness used in an earlier report by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The report uses active language to describe the positive steps the Taliban has made, but uses passive voice to explain the realities of the overwhelming issues in Afghanistan and the harm perpetrated by the Taliban—essentially elevating the Taliban’s successes and separating the Taliban from the problems they have caused.

For example, the report alludes that the Taliban has made progress in addressing forced marriages and widow’s rights and offers that the “decree has been under-enforced,” when it is known that there is categorically no enforcement of the ban and the rates of forced marriage are increasing. Moreover, the report relegates key information on the status of women and girls to the footnotes, further illustrating the intent to deemphasize the human rights violations for which the Taliban is responsible. 

Afghan experts, especially Afghan women, are rightly worried and ask: Is this report sending a message that the U.N. will gradually recognize the Taliban, allow them a seat at the U.N.—formal or informal—and disregard more than half the population of Afghanistan? Recognizing the Taliban poses numerous and very real dangers, encompassing the obvious human rights concerns, especially including restrictions on women’s rights and persecution of minorities. The potential for a resurgence of terrorism linked to the Taliban’s historical ties to extremist groups raises international security alarms. 

Legitimizing the Taliban’s government will undermine democratic principles and institutions while exacerbating regional instability. The U.N. possesses very few forms of leverage, the most important of which being the legitimacy it can afford governments. This report is deeply concerning because it insinuates that the U.N. is ready to give up their main incentive. 

Policymakers must carefully navigate these complexities, considering the broader implications for global security, human rights and regional stability.

To meet expectations of women’s rights and human rights, a following report must address what Afghan women have been communicating: that current challenges facing Afghanistan are a consequence of, and exacerbated by policies of gender apartheid. These challenges will not be resolved through a shift of attention away from human rights violations to appease the Taliban with international recognition.

The United Nations is in the unique position of holding the Taliban accountable as a de facto government. Commitment to ending gender apartheid must not waver.

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About and

Anselma Ellingwood is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City and an intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation working on the Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls.
Diya Mehta is a junior at George Washington University studying international affairs and women and gender studies. She is interested in women’s peace and security in the Middle East and South Asia. Diya hopes to conduct research and develop foreign policy to advance the status of women and girls globally.