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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

76th session of the United Nations General Assembly Side event - Safeguarding the achievements of 20 years of international engagement in Afghanistan: how to continue supporting the future of Afghan women and girls and their access to education.

21 September 2021

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

21 September 2021


Distinguished panellists and colleagues,

Since the Taliban's takeover, its spokespeople have issued several announcements of human rights commitments. Notably, in a letter to the United Nations they announced their "commitment to all rights of women... in the light of religion and culture" and vowed to "gradually take concrete steps with the help of the international community".

However, practices on the ground have undermined and sadly contradicted these stated commitments.

Women have been progressively excluded from the public sphere. In many areas, they are prohibited from appearing in public spaces without a male guardian. In numerous professional sectors, women face increasing restrictions. To date, girls over the age of 12 have in effect been prohibited from attending school. Female and male university students are now separated, with female students only to be taught by female professors – of whom there are few, further undermining women's access to higher education.

Exclusion from the public sphere has severe consequences for women and their families. Earlier this month, at an urgently convened high-level meeting in Geneva, colleagues made it clear that the growing humanitarian crisis across the country will have terrible impact. One million children risk extreme hunger, with death or long-term physical and mental harm a very real possibility. Girls, and children in families headed by women – most of whom can no longer work – are among those at greatest risk.

The Ministry that once promoted women's rights has been disbanded, and its premises taken over by a Ministry for the propagation of Virtue and the prevention of Vice – an all-male office that will apply guidelines on appropriate dress and behaviour. Taliban representatives have dismantled many Departments of Women's Affairs across Afghanistan, gaining access to sensitive files and threatening their personnel, and have accused women's civil society groups of immorality and spreading 'anti-Islamic' ideas.

There is real and palpable fear among Afghan women of a return to the Taliban's brutal and systemic repression of women and girls during the 1990s. Afghan women have, over the last 20 years worked towards ensuring greater respect for and protection of their rights to education; work; participation in civic and political life; as well as to freedom of movement and expression. These rights are part of the evolution of Afghan society and are integral to the development and economic growth of Afghanistan.

Afghan women and girls comprise half of the population. It will be to Afghanistan's advantage that the talents and capabilities of its women are utilised, to contribute to the Afghanistan of the future.Excellencies,

The Secretary-General has made it clear that the UN will engage with the Taliban to promote the human rights of Afghans, with special attention to the rights of women and girls.

For me, as High Commissioner, that must mean, first and foremost:

Women and girls must have full and equal access to essential services – including, but not limited to healthcare and all levels of education.

They must be able to work in every sector of the economy.

Women's participation in public life, decision-making and the civic space must be meaningful and equal to that of men.

They must be free to move about without impediment or specific restrictions.

The right of women and girls to live free of all gender-related violence, and their equal access to cultural life – including sports – must be respected.

In short, Afghan women and girls' human rights must be upheld and defended.

The international community – including the UN and all its member States, as well as all regional and inter-governmental institutions – should in every form of engagement with the Taliban, whether relating to development, humanitarian efforts, narcotics control or any other topic, commit to strong advocacy that demands compliance with these basic requirements for any fair and just society.

Respect for the rights of the women and girls of Afghanistan now will be a harbinger of the country's future.

They face extraordinary challenges – and we will remain at their side.