With the Taliban now in full control of Afghanistan, women in the country face particular risk to their lives. As women’s rights and civil society organisations, we have been in touch with a number who have already received death threats. Some have the Taliban at their doors already. There is a particular risk to those who have acted to make a fundamental difference to what it means to be a woman or girl in Afghanistan: those brave enough to hold public office or start women’s rights organisations, those who have tirelessly spearheaded grassroots advocacy efforts and those fearless enough to hold decision-makers to account through their journalism. Some, through their work, have played a visible, enabling role in helping the British government achieve its own objectives. As a direct result of this exposure, these women now face a high and imminent risk to their lives.
Along with other civil society organisations working with partners in Afghanistan, we write with urgent concern about this risk. Collectively, we call on the British government to take action immediately. First, to work closely with governments of neighbouring countries and other international powers to ensure safe and legal exit from the country for women and their families at risk of imminent danger. This would include providing visas for and assisting with the escort and evacuation of Afghan women at risk. The government must work hard to ensure the country’s land borders stay open to evacuations and to facilitate aid, including supporting safe houses and gender-based violence services for women and their families who cannot flee.
Second, we call on the government to extend the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) to include Afghan individuals and their dependents at a heightened risk of persecution due to their activism on women’s rights. At home, the UK should cease forced removals and reconsider any refused asylum claims in light of the change of the political situation, and expedite any existing family reunification applications.
Third, we call on the British government to guarantee attempts to protect these women in any actions taken in response to the situation. This includes leveraging multilateral avenues to safeguard Afghan women and girls. Any humanitarian response needs to be informed and led by local experts and organisations – who understand what their communities need – and needs to be gender responsive and conflict sensitive. This would not only ensure the rights of women and girls are upheld and that women participate meaningfully in any response and intervention, but also ensure a sustainable plan, built around the humanitarian actors best able to work alongside women’s activists and organisations in Afghanistan and in the diaspora.
During the past decades, numerous female human rights activists have worked with the British government to advance gender equality, peace and security in Afghanistan. That participation didn’t come without a cost – something we all anticipated – or a high level of responsibility. We request the British government act urgently to protect those women now at risk of persecution and death due to this work. Their protection is essential if the sector is to continue its coordination with and support of the British government’s work globally on women, peace and security, in line with our shared commitment to continue engaging with women and girls’ networks in conflict-affected settings.
The work of female human rights defenders, organisations and networks has made a material difference to both the UK’s successful delivery of its mission and objectives in Afghanistan, and achieving gender equality and upholding women’s rights in conflict on an international scale. The UK cannot abandon these women now.
This is an edited version of an open letter to the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, signed by Women for Women International, Gender Action for Peace and Security, and more than 100 other signatories from organisations, networks, individuals and academics who works in women’s rights, human rights, peace building and the humanitarian sector – many of whom have worked in Afghanistan or with partners in Afghanistan and share their devastation at the situation we are seeing unfold
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