When Afghan women are abducted for protesting, millions suffer

An Afghan university classroom

My colleagues and I at the UN are cautiously breathing a sigh of relief this weekend. Four Afghan women activists, some who had been missing for weeks, have returned home.

It began with a small peaceful protest on January 16. A group of women on the streets of Kabul, raising banners and chanting, demanding their basic rights to work, study, and travel. Within days, two of them vanished. Eyewitnesses say they were kidnapped by armed men. For the past three weeks nobody could say where they had gone.

The activists, Parawana Ibrahim Khil and Tamana Paryani, were abducted in Kabul on January 19. Parawana was taken off the street, together with her brother-in-law. They came for Tamana in her home, her last sighting being her terrified video appeal for help posted on social media. They took her three sisters, too.

Two further women activists, Zahra Mohammadi and Mursal Ayar, were ‘disappeared’ a few days later. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been increasingly concerned about their well-being and appealed for their release, while Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, in multiple meetings with the country’s de facto Taliban leaders pressed them to ensure their safety and enable their return home.

The mood in Kabul has darkened. Not a single protest has taken place since.

But then came the news of the activists’ release by the country’s de facto authorities. Our thoughts are with the women after their deeply troubling ordeal. The UN in Afghanistan has called for an end to arbitrary detentions and the practice of holding people incommunicado, as well as urging the release of all others wrongfully held.

After all, the incident has consequences far beyond the activists and their families. The news of peaceful protesters being abducted sent chills through the global community, further damaging the confidence of donors just as millions of Afghans are desperate for help.

This is an excruciating moment. Afghanistan is facing a catastrophic, yet preventable, humanitarian crisis. One in two Afghans don’t know where their next meal is coming from, while half the country’s children are already malnourished. Close to 25 million people are in urgent need of aid.

The UN is running a massive humanitarian operation in Afghanistan. We are mobilizing resources and scaling up life-saving assistance and agricultural support to offer hope to the millions of people facing starvation in harsh winter conditions. We need the world’s help to end this needless suffering.

Yet we also need Afghanistan’s de facto leadership to build global trust and legitimacy. There can be neither unless the human rights of all Afghans — not least women and girls — are respected and protected. Meanwhile, the lives of tens of millions of vulnerable Afghans hang in the balance.

The global community has been unwavering in its demands. Women and girls must be granted full access to education and the chance to participate fully and freely in social, economic, and political life. These are the foundations of durable peace and stability. They are the basis of global legitimacy.

And we know women and girls are just as vital for economic development. Without the full participation of women in the workforce, Afghanistan’s GDP is predicted to drop by 5%. Reinstating women’s rights to travel, work, study and participate could lift millions of households out of poverty.

The ‘disappearances’ are no isolated incident. The UN is investigating credible reports of serious human rights violations pointing to a pattern of arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture of activists, journalists, and former government employees in the six months since the Taliban seized power. The UN is also expressing concern about reports that women’s shelters and safe houses are systematically being closed down, leaving victims of domestic violence with no place to go.

The UN is engaging with the Taliban, urging them to change course, reverse the steady removal of women and girls from all forms of public life and guarantee their safety. We want an end to all harassment, intimidation, threats, and violence and the release of all those arbitrarily detained.

There may, perhaps be some small fragments of hope such as the recent reopening of public universities to all students, male and female. Yet far bolder commitment and action is needed to protect the progress of the last two decades. We’ll continue to stand with Afghan women demanding a future. The world is watching.

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Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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