Helen Clark was prime minister when New Zealand troops were committed to Afghanistan. She returned to the country as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and for a third time in 2019 with World Vision. There were promising signs for women and children then. But as the Taliban returns to power, we must ensure evacuation support for vulnerable and exposed people, she writes.
Anyone wondering what the future may hold for women and girls in Afghanistan could look to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. That dystopian novel, adapted for television in recent years, has gripped audiences, and, disturbingly, is not far from the emerging reality in Afghanistan.
Women and girls stand to be robbed of their rights under Taliban rule. A strict clothing code will be enforced. They may well be unable to obtain education beyond the elementary level. They will have little recourse if they experience physical or sexual violence. As well, the Taliban and its supporters, have a track record of extreme victim-blaming in the form of public floggings and stonings.
Thanks to Atwood, and now also to 24-hour media coverage, it is possible for us to visualise the danger many in Afghanistan are facing. It is sheer terror which drives people to cling for dear life to departing planes, only to fall from the sky. Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the only hope for many at this point is seeking refuge in another country.
Afghanistan could never succeed with a mere 20 years of international support. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, and has been wracked by violent conflict for decades. It takes time to build peace and better governance, and to lift human development sustainably. Calling it a day when there is so much left to do has had a house of cards effect.
In a very short time, the elected government has collapsed and terrorists in their thousands have been released from prison. Many aid workers and partners who have been repairing critical infrastructure destroyed by previous conflicts, working with communities to support opportunities for girls and women, and trying to keep children and their families alive in the face of an impending famine, have been forced to flee.
This desperate situation is all the more devastating because of the tentative progress which was being made. When I visited Herat and Badghis provinces in early 2019, what I saw gave me hope. Religious leaders were working to stamp out child marriage. There were livelihoods initiatives for women. Street children and child labourers were being given the opportunity to continue their education.
But the human development challenges remained huge. I visited health clinics where children were being treated for acute malnutrition. Many of them came from families which had been displaced by conflict, drought, or both. In my travels elsewhere for the United Nations to areas suffering food insecurity, I had never seen children who were so unwell. Some 41% of children under five in Afghanistan have had their growth stunted due to lack of food. Without necessary humanitarian access and assistance, that figure is surely set to rise.
The Taliban now has much of Afghanistan in a vice-like grip. The international community must urgently ensure evacuation support, not only for non-Afghans in the country, but also for at-risk Afghan nationals, including members of civil society, activists and human rights defenders, academics, journalists, workers for NGOs, and other politically vulnerable and exposed people. Visas must be expedited and support provided for resettlement.
It is also urgent to assess how, in this complicated and violent context, those inevitably left behind, who constitute the vast majority of the Afghan population, can have their basic needs met. The traumatic events of recent weeks have left a population devastated by decades of conflict, insecurity, and drought even more vulnerable than before. The overthrow of an elected government by militants dedicated to turning back the clock by decades on human development is a recipe for increased misery on a grand scale. Can the world stand by and watch this happen? Or will it act?