As American and NATO forces complete their withdrawal from the war-torn country and the Taliban gains control of more territory, supporters of women’s rights and faith leaders are calling for a United Nations peacekeeping force to protect hard-won gains for women over the last two decades.
Women were not allowed to go to school, work outside the home, or leave the house without a male escort under the Taliban. And, while they still face many challenges in the country’s male-dominated society, Afghan women have increasingly risen to positions of power in a variety of fields, and many fear that the departure of international troops and a Taliban takeover will undo their achievements.
In a letter obtained on May 14, 140 civil society and faith leaders from the United States, Afghanistan, and other countries “dedicated to the education and rights of women in Afghanistan” have petitioned US President Joe Biden to request a United Nations peacekeeping force “to ensure that the cost of US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is not paid for in the lives of schoolgirls.”
The letter also requested that the United States increase humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan “as an important security strategy” to strengthen women, girls, and religious minorities such as the Hazaras. On May 8, three bombs exploded at a high school in Kabul’s Hazara neighborhood, killing nearly 100 people, all of whom were Hazara and most of whom were young girls just leaving class.
The signatories blamed the Trump administration for failing to honor a United Nations Security Council resolution passed in 2000 that demanded equal participation for women in activities promoting global peace “by refusing to insist that women be included in peace talks” with the Taliban.
Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, which operates schools in 16 provinces, is quoted in the letter as saying, “For 20 years, the West told Afghan women they were free.” Free to learn, grow, and be a human being without regard for men’s expectations of who they are.”
Among those who signed the letter were Yacoobi; feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem; former U.N. deputy secretary-general Mark Malloch Brown, who now heads the Open Society Institute; filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney; former UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy; Betty Reardon, the International Institute on Peace Education’s founding director emeritus; and The Rev. Dr. Chloe Brewer.
The Taliban promised in April that women would be able to “serve their society in the education, business, health, and social fields while wearing correct Islamic hijab.” It promised girls the right to choose their own husbands, but provided few other details and did not guarantee women would be able to participate in politics or move freely without being accompanied by a male relative.
On June 22, the United Nations Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, told the Security Council that “preserving the rights of women remains a paramount concern and must not be used as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table.”
A larger international group expressed deep concern “for the lives and well-being of the people of Afghanistan, especially women and girls now under great threat” in a follow-up letter to U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on July 12 and called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to deploy to Afghanistan “as soon as practically possible.”
The signatories believe that a Security Council resolution passed in 2000 obligates U.N. member states to “protect women in such circumstances.”
In Afghanistan, the United Nations has a political mission. A United Nations peacekeeping mission would need to be approved by the Security Council, which consists of the five permanent members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — have veto power.
Similar messages were sent to other U.N. ambassadors from citizens in their countries requesting a peacekeeping operation, according to the letter to the US ambassador. It requested that Thomas-Greenfield “take action toward the establishment of a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.”
A spokesperson for the US mission did not respond to a request for comment on the call for a United Nations peacekeeping force, instead emphasizing Thursday that the Biden administration will continue to support Afghan forces and US “diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic engagement in the region.”