Freshta Karim explains how to change the lives of Afghan women
IT IS THE first International Women’s Day in years that I will not be at home in Afghanistan. I write to mark it instead of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. I am not here as an academic, but as a former exile, exhausted by conflict and violence, in search of solace. It reminds me of the mobile library chain named “Charmaghz” which I run in Kabul. Charmaghz means nuts in Farsi; it represents the brain and the importance of fostering critical thinking. Children visit our libraries with enthusiasm, eager to immerse themselves in new stories and imagine a world beyond war. Not a day goes by that I don’t fear for their future.
In Afghanistan, 97% of the population is at risk of falling below the poverty line according to the United Nations Development Programme. Our institutions and systems, from education to health care to banking, are on the verge of collapse, after two decades of progress. There is still a de facto ban on secondary education for girls; the right of women to hold public office as civil servants or politicians has been suspended. The world paid attention to the immediate details of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. But there is too little discussion of what happened next. We need political stability, economic recovery and respect for human rights.
Afghan women make courageous decisions every day. They lead a non-violent movement and shout during the demonstrations: “Education, work, freedom! Some were detained; others are now missing. Yet the protests continue. Other young women are sharing their stories anonymously in the media and online, as Malala Yousafzai did many years ago.
Realizing every girl’s right to education is vital to the future of Afghanistan. Without it, the country will sink deeper into poverty and into an endless cycle of war and oppression. If we want a better future, we must advocate for girls’ education and women’s right to work. Banning them is not only a violation of their Islamic and human rights, it also has enormous economic and development costs. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. We need educated women to contribute if we hope to prosper. Securing these rights, and ensuring that they are respected in the long term, requires securing peace and achieving better political representation and greater political stability. Four actions are essential if we are to secure Afghanistan’s future.
First, the Taliban must keep their promises. On August 17, 2021, the group announced its commitment to women’s right to work, study and participate as active members of society. They should honor this by unconditionally reopening secondary schools to girls, as they promised, in time for the start of the school year on March 21.
If girls’ schools reopen, the international community should help ensure that education is adequately funded. According to the UN’s Transitional Engagement Framework for Afghanistan, approximately $900 million is needed to prevent Afghanistan’s education system from collapsing. The framework outlines essential tools, including community education, teacher allowances and cash transfers. Afghanistan’s education system has been dependent on aid for so long that it cannot be expected to sustain itself during a crisis of this magnitude. And the investment is worth it. Over the past 20 years, aid has increased school enrollment tenfold and helped double the female literacy rate between 2011 and 2018. It has also facilitated the recruitment and training of more than 80,000 new teachers.
Second, the Afghan economy needs immediate help. Afghans do not want to live on aid forever. The country’s assets held in foreign banks should be unfrozen and donor governments should find ways to return them to the Afghan people, supporting the economy and the central bank. On February 11, President Biden’s administration announced an executive order to facilitate access to $3.5 billion in Afghan funds for humanitarian assistance, but the recall of the $7 billion fund could be granted to families of 9/11 victims pending judicial review. But the reserves belong to the Afghan people, not the Taliban or the foreign countries where they are held. International Crisis Group, a global think tank focused on conflict prevention, has identified a number of ways to ease Afghanistan’s liquidity crisis while keeping reserves out of Taliban hands. These include: releasing and controlling small amounts of funds to technocrats independent of the central bank; facilitate the auction of US dollars and the strengthening of the Afghan currency; and currency swaps managed by an international entity such as the World Bank or a United Nations agency. Unfreezing and redirecting assets from Afghanistan to support the economy and livelihoods of Afghans is not only the right move for longer-term recovery, it is also right.
Third, the United Nations must create space for dialogue between the Taliban and other political actors. The current political organization is strongly centralized. He favors the Taliban, who represent a narrow part of the same ethnic group. This leaves no room for other ethnic communities, women and former political parties to express themselves or influence the politics of the country through non-violent means. To remedy this, Afghanistan must have a decentralized administrative and political structure. Parts of the Taliban recognize that listening to other voices has benefits for them: it would help them gain greater national legitimacy and international recognition and pave the way for the lifting of sanctions. The UN could therefore use its financial and moral influence to facilitate the talks. As a finalist for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, I recently joined other Afghan women activists in urging the international community not to recognize the Taliban. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage with them in the interests of promoting human rights and pursuing peace. All stakeholders inside and outside Afghanistan must engage in dialogue and other non-violent avenues to end the conflict.
Fourth, world leaders should support a transitional justice process to deal with past atrocities. Since 2001, nearly 150,000 Afghans have been killed, many of them civilians. Many other Afghan lives were lost over the previous two decades, during Soviet occupation, civil war and the first Taliban government. Without justice, the Afghan people will continue to suffer in a culture of impunity. Afghans see justice as a prerequisite for building a more stable and peaceful society. Mechanisms to encourage it would be crucial steps in securing Afghanistan’s future and breaking the cycle of violence. But they have not yet been arrested and the perpetrators have not yet been held accountable. All parties should therefore support the establishment of public forums in which the voices of victims can be heard and war survivors compensated through projects designed with their input, as we have seen in places like Guinea . The investigation by the International Criminal Court is a step in the right direction.
The current dialogue on Afghanistan focuses on the provision of immediate humanitarian assistance and on fundamental rights. But the international community must think long-term and address broader issues of justice, political stability and economic recovery if it is to secure the rights of Afghan women and girls. How much humanitarian aid can be given if the country’s economy does not recover? How will girls’ education be sustained if girls’ schools are open but there is no stable political system in place and there is a continuing threat of internal conflict?
It is time for the international community to show courage if it wants to help secure the future of Afghanistan. He wields the diplomatic power to lobby, advocate for the reopening of schools, fund education and support the revival of the Afghan economy. Each of us also has the chance to make a difference. Amplify the calls of Afghan activists and help us push to end this crisis – call for peace, education and equality for women’s rights. It is in our darkest moments that we must make the most courageous decisions.
Freshta Karim is a child rights activist, advisor to the Malala Fund and founder of Charmaghz, a chain of mobile libraries for children in Afghanistan.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai invited Freshta Karim, Vanessa Nakate, Kiara Nirghin and Tigidankay “TK” Saccoh to write essays for International Women’s Day. Visit our hub to learn more.