IIt has been described as the brain drain from Afghanistan, after the return to power of the Taliban last year precipitated an exodus of politicians, academics and journalists who fled in anticipation of reprisals and censorship under the militant group’s draconian regime.
For a small group of Afghan women, however, the work of running the country has not stopped, even in exile.
Fawzia Koofi is a former member of the Afghan parliament and served as its first female vice-president. Although she has moved several times since leaving the country in August last year, the 47-year-old has continued to speak with her former colleagues and contacts in international governance, working to find solutions to the political crisis. and humanitarianism in Afghanistan.
“They [the Taliban] don’t know how to govern and they don’t respect Afghanistan’s social mosaic, which makes them more fragile, but also hurts Afghans,” says Koofi, who has worked in Europe and the United States with states members of the United Nations for the past year. “I don’t think they will last very long, but I am concerned about the damage they are inflicting on the social and political fabric of Afghanistan.”
The work of Koofi and her fellow Afghans has helped bridge the gap between the Taliban, who operate under harsh sanctions and are plagued by economic crisis and enforce gender apartheid, and the international community.
“We call them the ‘group of six,'” says UN Women’s Sarah Douglas, referring to a core group of Afghan women who have been instrumental in shaping international policy towards their country during the last year. The group also includes Asila Wardak, a former diplomat and one of the founders of the Afghan Women’s Network; Sofia Ramyar, former executive director of the Afghan Youth-led Organization for Progressive Thought; and journalist Anisa Shaheed.
Giving an example, Douglas says: “There have been negotiations around the renewal of the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) – and concerns that the mandate would regress in terms of equality gender and human rights, and that this would be reflected in the budget. But the mandate remained intact, and the central member states contacted me and told me that the advocacy of these women had really made a difference in these negotiations.
Mariken Bruusgaard Harbitz, Member of Norway’s Permanent Mission to the UN, said: “Norway has initiated dialogues behind closed doors for these women to present their priorities to key member states at a critical time. During the process of renewing the mandate of Unama, these women expressed clear expectations for the formulation of the mandate, which in turn contributed to a strong monitoring and reporting mechanism for Unama on the ground.
Mariam Safi, director of the Afghan Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies, didn’t let the chaos and shock of the past year stop her from continuing her work from Canada, collecting crucial data on the Afghanistan, especially among women. After a brief hiatus, Safi improvised and restarted her work a few months ago via a digital platform, with researchers across Canada and Afghanistan working from home.
One of their main projects, called Bishnaw, which means “to listen” in Dari, continues to conduct surveys of women across Afghanistan. “There is a story [in the media] right now, that means Afghans are mostly concerned about the humanitarian crisis,” says Safi. “But our data on women from nine provinces shows that right after that, women are most concerned about women’s rights and the closure of girls’ schools.”
Bishnaw’s surveys also revealed a pattern of women’s exclusion from international aid. “Of approximately 295 women, 163 told us that no female in their household had access to assistance, contrary to Taliban claims that female-headed households received assistance. Only about five out of 532 women surveyed said that all women had access to it.
“These data can actually provide [the international community] with much more weight in their discussions with the Taliban,” she said. “At every meeting, they always ask, ‘What do the Afghans want? What do women want? What are their concerns? We want to be able to provide data to answer these questions,” she says.
Naheed Farid, one of the youngest Afghan parliamentarians when she was elected at 27, describes her work with the Group of Six as rekindling her sense of mission after leaving Kabul for the United States last year. “I had lost all hope after the Taliban took power. But watching Afghan women and young people march through Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad to demand their rights has given me the strength to relaunch my advocacy,” she says.
Douglas says there is a danger that international attention will drift away from Afghanistan without the efforts of these women and others like them. “My assessment is that they are extremely bold because they want to keep the momentum and the visibility, and the issue of Afghan women, at the top of the agenda. And especially with the situation in Ukraine, they are very worried that the international community is forgetting this.
One Member State she highlights for its continued commitment to working with the group is Ireland. Their outgoing UN ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, says: “With my team, I meet with them about once a month. We cover the latest developments in Afghanistan as they affect ordinary people, and women in particular. I keep them informed of developments at the UN and in particular at the Security Council. I ask them for their views on current issues relating to the Council’s work on Afghanistan. We exchange views on how to use our respective levers to make a difference.
“Peace and security discussions and decisions in a midtown Manhattan boardroom can only be effective if informed by the voices of those directly affected,” says Byrne.
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