Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait, is welcomed by teachers and students at a girls’ primary school in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Credit: Omid Fazel/ECW
New York, Nov 5 2021 (IPS) – After leading a landmark, first-ever all-women mission to Afghanistan last week, Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait, the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, says that schools must reopen for all children and that girls, in particular, must be able to return to secondary school classrooms.
Sherif visited a girls’ school in Kabul and spoke to students, female teachers, and administrators as part of her Afghan mission. She also met with the de facto education authorities at the Ministry of Education to advocate the right of all children to quality education. The ECW mission comes less than a month after ECW launched a US$4 million First Emergency Response grant to provide ‘quality, flexible learning and psychosocial support for children and adolescents caught in the escalating crisis.
“We need to act fast. When you are in the midst of a humanitarian emergency like Afghanistan, where there is no money in circulation, starvation is a very real fact and poverty is extreme,” Sherif told IPS. “Schools need to continue to reopen and education must be sustained. Not only at primary school levels but through secondary schools – and girls have to go back to secondary schools.”
Sherif, a human rights lawyer, worked in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. She was part of a mission to the country after the first Taliban takeover in 1999 and has visited the country periodically over the last 20 years. She spoke to IPS about her observations from this ground-breaking mission to Kabul a few days ago – the first of its kind since the Taliban take-over in August.
Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait, meets with de facto education authorities in Afghanistan. Credit: Omid Fazel/ECW
“There are more women on the streets of Kabul today. I even saw women demonstrating for health care. I visited a girls’ primary school whose teachers and administration were all women,” Sherif said.
“The school’s headmaster is a woman, the school’s doctor is a woman, administrators and teachers are women. There are educated, strong women who are working, but they do not get salaries, because there are no salaries for basic services as a result of the funding freeze to Afghanistan.”
The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union are just a few of the international bodies that have cut off Afghanistan’s access to financing. According to the World Bank, the country relies on grant funding for more than 75 percent of public spending, with expenditure of US$411 billion and government revenue of US$2.5 billion.
With that grant funding frozen, the country is on the brink of economic collapse.
Sherif is appealing for direct funding through UN agencies like ECW and UNICEF, which has the proven mechanisms in place to ensure that funds are used to support teachers and students.
“Teachers are not being paid. UNICEF has a very strong process on the ground. If money were to be given today or tomorrow to pay all teacher salaries, UNICEF has capacities in place to deliver on that funding, even if this would typically have been done through the World Bank or other development actors, but now we are in humanitarian crisis so you cannot use regular development aid approaches,” Sherif told IPS.
“The same goes for all UN agencies like the World Food Programme and UNHCR, the UN Refugees agency. Funding can be channeled through them directly to implement aid programmes. Nothing needs to, nor will go through, the de facto authorities.”
The ECW Director is cautiously optimistic following her meeting with the de facto education authorities, to whom she appealed for a return to secondary school for girls.
UNICEF Deputy Representative Alice Akunha and Chief of Education Jeannette Vogelaar greet the Education Cannot Wait all-women delegation to Afghanistan, led by Director Yasmine Sherif and her colleagues, Michelle May and Anouk Desgroseilliers. Credit: Omid Fazel/ECW
“Primary schools have opened for girls’ education and for girls’ secondary education, the de facto authorities told us that they are developing a plan. I stressed that the girls have no time to lose and that the benefits of educating girls are crucial to the future of the country,” she said.
The ECW Director has commended international and national civil society organizations that now work with religious scholars as they negotiate the resumption of secondary school education at the grassroots level. “By bringing an Islamic scholar with them, these NGOs have actually managed to build trust. So secondary schools have opened in some provinces, a few in the north and a few in the south. It is important to stand firm on human rights and girls’ rights, but you must also have the ability to build trust as well,” she said.
ECW is already prepared to swiftly scale up its support and adapt its programming in Afghanistan. New challenges and more children in need of help demand pivoting and quick response. Sherif says ECW was created for crises like these.
“As the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, we are agile, quick, and flexible. We use decades of lessons learned across the UN system to respond to crises. Traditional development aid modalities that are not crisis-sensitive are not going to work; not in this situation,” she said.
Sherif says that an estimated $1 billion is urgently required for United Nations agencies and international and local NGOs to meet the pressing education needs across the country.
“It’s about how can we save the Afghan population from a humanitarian catastrophe. How can we ensure that every Afghan girl and boy in the country can go to primary and secondary school? It’s about how we can ensure that teachers receive their salaries, so they are able to continue to teach. It is about providing teaching and learning materials and safe learning environments. It is about ensuring that the rights of adolescent girls to access education are fulfilled. That is why it was important for us to do an all-women mission to Afghanistan and to make clear where we stand on girls’ education.”
Sherif is hoping that the visit can give the world an open window view into life in Afghanistan and provide concrete recommendations for international aid to be immediately scaled up and invested to support quality education for both girls and boys.
“Afghanistan cannot wait. The girls of Afghanistan cannot wait. Education cannot wait.”
The Taliban have appointed an all-male cabinet. They abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and handed over the women’s ministry building to the reinstated Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which was responsible for some of the worst abuses against women during the Taliban’s previous period in power from 1996 to 2001.
This was the situation two months after the Taliban had regained control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, as the US and its allies departed, wrapping up their 20-year engagement in Afghanistan’s 40-year war.
The US and the whole international community seem a bit stunned and unsure of what to do. It forms a sadly perfect bookend to the days after the 9/11 attacks, when the US and its allies grieved and raged and then emphasized Taliban abuses of women and girls to help them build support for their invasion of Afghanistan.
Even governments priding themselves on their commitment to women’s rights have struggled to find solutions. They have also struggled to make the rights of Afghan women and girls a top priority at a moment when troop-contributing nations are licking their wounds, and concerns about Afghanistan again becoming a host to international terrorist operations could overshadow concerns about human rights.
Taliban attacks on rights are not the only problem women and girls are facing. Afghanistan’s economy is in free fall, set off by widespread lost income, cash shortages, rising food costs, being severed from global financial systems, and an abrupt halt to the development assistance that made up 75 percent of the previous government’s budget.
Healthcare workers and teachers, many of them women, have not been paid for months, and the healthcare system is collapsing. Where schools for girls are open, few students attend, out of fear that they cannot move to and from school safely, along with financial problems, and a sense of despair about their future. And unpaid teachers may or may not teach.
Weak international response
Even as it became increasingly clear over the course of years that cheerful US and NATO statements about their progress in defeating the Taliban were papering over huge and growing cracks, few could imagine a Taliban return as abrupt as the one that took place in August 2021. Few would have predicted this level of humanitarian crisis and collapse of essential services within weeks of the end of a 20-year military, political, and development engagement by at least 42 countries costing an estimated $2.3 trillion.
The early weeks of resumed Taliban rule seemed marked by indecision and slow response by the international community, in spite of a G7 pledge on August 24, following an emergency meeting, that “We will work together, and with our allies and regional countries, through the UN, G20 and more widely, to bring the international community together to address the critical questions facing Afghanistan.”
A special session of the UN Human Rights Council on August 24 produced no meaningful progress. The UN Security Council in September renewed the mandate of the UN mission in Afghanistan but did not take specific steps to strengthen the mission’s human rights work, which faced staffing gaps and problems after some staff left their posts or were evacuated.
The resolution creating the role of special rapporteur provided the person with greater staffing resources than most special rapporteurs but did not accelerate the on-boarding process. Under the standard timeline, the rapporteur and their team won’t be in place until mid-2022.
An announcement by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor called into question the role that body will play in protecting human rights in Afghanistan. The court’s Office of the Prosecutor had been considering action in Afghanistan since 2007 and opened an investigation in 2020.
Alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity within the court’s jurisdiction in Afghanistan include: attacks against civil servants including female officials; attacks on schools particularly girls’ schools; and rape and other sexual violence against women and girls. The investigation was suspended nearly as soon as it was opened, however, while the Office of the Prosecutor considered a request from the former Afghan government to defer to national proceedings.
The prosecutor on September 27, 2021, announced that he would seek authorization from the court to resume investigations in the absence of any prospect of genuine national proceedings, but would focus on crimes committed by the Taliban and Islamic State and “deprioritize” other aspects of the investigation.
This approach sends a message that some victims in Afghanistan are more entitled to justice than others, and risks undermining the legitimacy of the court’s investigation.
There is significant variety in the views of key countries about engaging with the new Taliban authorities in Afghanistan. Regional politics are fraught and complex. China and Russia may see themselves as benefitting from a shift in global power dynamics due to the US defeat in Afghanistan, and they and others including Pakistan and Qatar seem more ready than countries that contributed troops to engage with the Taliban. China, Russia and Pakistan were among only five countries that voted against the Human Rights Council resolution to establish a special rapporteur.
“Feminist foreign policy” and the Taliban
Women’s rights activists have made important progress around the world in the 20 years since the Taliban were previously in power, from 1996 to 2001. These advances make the Taliban’s violations of the rights of women and girls even more cruel and intolerable than they were in 2001 and should help spur action by countries that have made progress to right these wrongs.
How should a world increasingly embracing “feminist foreign policy” respond to Taliban violations of the rights of women and girls in 2021?
The first step is to muster political will. Lack of political may be a particular challenge in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign troops, but it is not a new problem. During the decades of international presence, troop-contributing nations paid lip service and contributed funding toward women’s rights, but rarely political capital, and over time the lip service and cash dwindled too.
Then there is a need for the international community to reach as much consensus as possible about what the problems are and what should be done. There are signs that even countries that have been more open to engaging with the Taliban have been disappointed by their unwillingness to appoint an inclusive government and their violations of women’s and girls’ rights.
The Taliban government excludes not just women but also largely excludes religious minorities and most non-Pashtun ethnic groups. Even China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran have all called for the Taliban to form an “inclusive government.” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that banning girls from education in Afghanistan would be “un-Islamic.” Qatar’s foreign minister called the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education “very disappointing.”
The Taliban’s unbending stance on the rights of women and girls is so extreme that this, and its opposition to an inclusive government, may drive broad concern about their actions and help the international community build consensus about how to engage. The US may not be the most able leader for this process and may prefer not to lead.
Other countries and institutions, including countries that have pledged to have a feminist foreign policy, majority Muslim countries, and organizations like the EU, should consider taking on greater leadership than they have so far, in response to a weak response from the US.
Next comes the need for a plan. Whatever the plan is, it should avoid any actions that would worsen Afghanistan’s deepening humanitarian crisis and disproportionately affect women and girls. There are signs of emerging agreement for humanitarian assistance and essential services, with the United Nations Development Program having made arrangements to pay salaries of healthcare workers on a temporary basis.
But major issues remain unresolved, suffering from a lack consensus by the international community, including how to respond to Taliban efforts to exclude women from working for aid agencies . Women workers are essential to ensure that aid reaches women and women-headed households. so permitting women humanitarian workers to do their jobs is not setting a condition on humanitarian assistance so much as an operational necessity to be able to deliver that assistance.
The international community has struggled to identify what leverage they have that can be used to influence the Taliban. The situation has been complicated by opaqueness on the Taliban side. Governments and donors need to figure out what the Taliban want from the international community, how much and where the Taliban are willing to compromise to get what they want. And they need to identify what other pressures—including the demands of their own members and the risk of Taliban fighters defecting to the Islamic State—constrain the Taliban from compromise.
This promise has not been fulfilled in any country; no country has achieved full gender equality and disparities in access to education and employment, wage gaps, and failure to adequately respond to gender-based violence are common around the world. But even in that context, Taliban violations of the rights of women and girls are uniquely extreme.
No other country openly bars girls from studying on the basis of gender. It is shocking to see a country intentionally destroy its system for responding to gender-based violence and dismantle institutions such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs that were designed to strengthen compliance with CEDAW.
The leverage the international community has to influence the Taliban needs to be deployed in defense of the rights of women and girls. Doing this will be a complex, difficult, and long-term task. But as
CEDAW members, and, in many cases, countries that used women’s rights to sell a war and spent 20 years promising eternal solidarity to Afghan women and girls, the international community owes them this effort.