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Outgoing UN Envoy Laments Taliban Curbs on Rights of Afghan Women, Schoolgirls

FILE - Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, attends a Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board meeting at the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, July 28, 2021.
FILE - Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, attends a Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board meeting at the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, July 28, 2021.

The United Nations envoy for Afghanistan in her farewell message Thursday expressed sorrow over the Islamist Taliban’s “extreme policies” curtailing women’s rights, press freedoms and inclusive political representation.

“I could not have imagined, when I accepted this job, the Afghanistan that I am now leaving,” said Deborah Lyons, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

The outgoing UNAMA chief arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul, two years ago, starting her stint when the now-defunct Western-backed government was running the country and struggling to contain the deadly Taliban insurgency.

“My heart breaks in particular for the millions of Afghan girls who are denied their right to education, and the many Afghan women full of talent who are being told to stay at home instead of using those talents to rebuild a society that now experiences far less conflict but in some ways as much fear as before,” she lamented.

The Taliban seized control of war-ravaged Afghanistan last August and installed an all-male interim administration following the end of almost 20 years of U.S.-led foreign military intervention in the South Asian country.

The Islamist group has suspended secondary education for most teenage girls and prevented female staff in certain government departments from returning to their duties.

The Ministry for Vice and Virtue, tasked with interpreting and enforcing the Taliban’s version of Islam, has ordered women to cover up fully, including their faces, in public, and it has strongly advised them not to leave their homes “to wander around aimlessly,” barring them from traveling beyond 70 kilometers unless accompanied by a male relative.

“It is that much more painful as a woman to leave my Afghan sisters in the condition they are in,” Lyons said. "It is an irony that now that there is space for everyone to help rebuild the country, half of the population is confined and prevented from doing so.”

The Taliban had excluded women from public life and girls from receiving an education when they previously ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. Only three countries, including neighboring Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had recognized the Taliban government at the time.

Lyons cautioned the fundamentalist group that a "system that excludes women, minorities and talented people will not endure.” She advocated for the international community to remain engaged with what she referred to as Afghanistan’s de facto authorities.

The U.N. envoy pledged, however, that the world body will not abandon millions of Afghans in need of urgent assistance in the wake of years of war and persistent drought in the country.

No country has yet granted the new Taliban government diplomatic recognition because of its harsh treatment of women and terrorism-related concerns.

An already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has worsened since the return to power of the Taliban in the wake of international financial sanctions on many senior leaders of the ruling group, pushing the national economy to the brink of collapse.

The United Nations estimates that more than half of Afghanistan’s 40 million people are suffering from acute hunger and urgently need humanitarian aid. Some 1.1 million Afghan children are suffering from malnutrition.

The Taliban have rejected repeated international calls for reversing their women-related edicts, insisting they are in line with Afghan culture and Islamic tradition. They also defend their administration as fully representative of all Afghans.