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US Envoy Appeals for International Support for Afghan Women

U.S. Special Envoy Rina Amiri addresses the 16th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards virtual ceremony at the State Department, March 14, 2022, in Washington.
U.S. Special Envoy Rina Amiri addresses the 16th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards virtual ceremony at the State Department, March 14, 2022, in Washington.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, Rina Amiri, says women’s rights in Afghanistan “suffered a tremendous setback” after the Taliban seized power in August, but that supporting Afghan women is “one area where there is solidarity” in the United States and international community.

Amiri, who was appointed as a special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights in December, said that the Taliban has “consistently” pledged to reopen girls’ schools, but that “education without a link to economic opportunities and without the ability to work is not very meaningful.”

In an interview with Breshna Omarkhel of VOA’s Afghan service, Amiri said that the international community “needs to step up and provide direct support” to Afghan women and civil society.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: In your opinion, have Afghan women lost their two-decade gains after the Taliban seized power in August 2021?

Rina Amiri: You know, on August 15, I think we all recognize that Afghan women and the Afghan population, in general, suffered a tremendous setback. Overnight, Afghan women and girls were shut out of schools, shut out of work, and prevented from participating in public and political life after two decades of tremendous gains. But my hope is that the achievements [to be preserved]. And we've already seen the tremendous resilience among Afghan women and girls and their determination to not turn the clock backwards.

VOA: How would you respond to some of the activists saying that the U.S. and the international community have left Afghan women to the mercy of the Taliban?

Rina Amiri: I'm sympathetic to them. I think that it's understandable that, you know, I was speaking to Afghan women inside the country in the months that led up to the Taliban takeover and on the day of and I, you know, I heard the devastation of their voice and just the level of disbelief that suddenly overnight they were, these were women who were serving as ministers, as parliamentarians, as lawyers as judges, as shopkeepers, that suddenly all of that was being taken away when they had received such support from the international community. So, I can see where that frustration, and that dismay, comes from. But one area where there's solidarity is the issue of Afghan women's rights. There is support among Republicans among Democrats, among the country as a whole. So, this and, you know, I've had the benefit now, not just in this job but in all the work that I've done in the last two decades to be able to speak to a wide variety of countries, civil society actors throughout the world; and they always ask me when they find out that I am from Afghan heritage, the first thing they ask me is what they can do to support Afghan women's rights. And that hasn't changed. In fact, that has been amplified since August 15th.

VOA: We know that the Taliban have imposed strict rules and are imposing new restrictions on women. What can the U.S. and the international community do to ensure that women in Afghanistan have their very basic rights? Does the U.S. have any leverage on the Taliban?

Rina Amiri: I think there are multiple areas to work on. First, I think it's supporting Afghan women themselves, supporting them not just as victims, but as leaders. These women have shown tremendous courage, tremendous resilience and should not just be treated as victims to be helped, but leadership voices that need to be lifted and to be supported and to be leveraged. And they also need more direct support, and this is a case that I'm making in the U.S. government and to the international community that Afghan women have been stripped of their rights inside the country, but that the donor community needs to step up and provide direct support so that Afghan women, civil society organizations are sustained and that they're supported to carry out their work. That is something that must continue. So that's one element. Two is, you know, since I started, I've had the opportunity to engage the Taliban directly along with other international actors on a wide variety of issues. And what I've been reassured by is that it's not just my position. My role, my mandate, is to leverage and to prioritize the situation of Afghan women and girls and human rights. But I've heard from every single special representative that has been sitting next to me at these tables, including the U.S. special representative, Tom West, the European special representative, those from Muslim majority countries, making the case that the Taliban, the Afghan women's rights are not negotiable and that they are out of step if they believe that they can strip women's educational rights, economic rights and their right and their responsibility to participate in the social life of the political life of the country.

VOA: Are women's rights a condition for the Taliban's recognition?

Rina Amiri: What is very clear is: for the Taliban to have any level of legitimacy both inside the country and with the international community, they have to enable women's rights, they have to protect women's rights and they have to advance women's rights. And to some degree, I hear that they understand that reality. They have, I think if you look at the course that they've taken in the last seven months on some areas, they have recognized that they need to move for example, in the area of education. They have now consistently said that they are going to be opening up schools for girls. They've opened up university-level education in some areas.

And what they said to me which was most encouraging is that they are going to open up schools for girls not just because the international community wants it but because it's a principle of Islam. So that's an area where I think that there has been some progress. What I note to them is that education without a link to economic opportunity and without the ability to work is not very meaningful because for Afghan families, it's a very pragmatic issue. They educate their girls so that they could put food on the table so that they can have a future of economic sustainability.

VOA: What are the United States’ key demands from the Taliban, especially about women? What exactly does the U.S. want the Taliban to change?

Rina Amiri: The U.S. has consistently said that the Taliban have to respect the fundamental rights of women, girls and all Afghan citizens, including vulnerable populations, minorities. One is to put forward a process in that country. Right now, the Taliban are in a position where they are saying that they are prepared to govern the country, and the U.S. position has been that governing the country would require an inclusive and transparent process that brings in the voices of all Afghans and women in particular that they have to be able to return to school at all levels, not just the primary and secondary but primary, secondary, tertiary across the country and every part of the country.