A vocal women’s rights activist in Afghanistan sent a message to me: “I’m still alive, I am not sure for how long,” she wrote. I have received many similar messages from women across Afghanistan and also women’s rights groups working with local women on the ground.
I have my friend’s daughters staying with me for the holiday: they are 7, 10 and 14. The 14-year-old loafs around in baggy jeans and a T-shirt that reveals her young belly as she taps away on her phone sending selfies to her mates. The little girls sit reading books, ask for a few quid to run to the shops and argue over who gets to use the red, and apparently superior, controller to play videogames. I sit in the corner, studiously going through the hundreds of emails arriving in my inbox.
There are hundreds of scanned documents of women and children in Afghanistan, their ID photos staring out at me while the chatter of the girls who wear their freedoms so lightly rings out around me. I try to explain that I am trying to get women and children out of Afghanistan because they may be married off against their will, they might not be able to go to school, they might have to always ask permission of a man to be who they are... and these little girls look at me blankly, unable to conceive of such a thing.
I don’t know if I will be able to help all those who come to me in hope. Currently, the UK Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) doesn’t include Afghans and their dependants who are at heightened risk of persecution due to their activism on human and women’s rights. I look through other countries’ schemes and try to find other options; those of some of our allies, such as Canada, seem more hopeful. Surely the UK will follow suit and prioritise these women?
This is why I am backing the call from The Independent for the government to increase the number of refugees it takes from Afghanistan. The current proposal does not meet the scale of the challenge.
I mean, surely we had a plan, before we withdrew our presence, for the obvious threat to the women in Afghanistan and those we have been working with to improve women’s rights? Surely no government worth its salt would have taken an action that so obviously posed a clear and immediate threat to the women of a country without having a proper plan specifically about women’s security?
Surely, any country that has professed its commitment to girls’ education, and used the freedoms gifted to women as justification for its actions for so long, would have had a clear and organised plan, with charities on the ground and local agencies to assess the risk to women?
I have asked the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, to send me the copies of the assessments that they did about women’s safety in their planning, and also to send me the details of what they put in place to at least mitigate the risks. I look forward to reading the detailed analysis of, and strategy for, women’s security that, of course, any decent government that had been present in a country for so long would surely have undertaken. Surely – because we never forget women’s experiences in policymaking, right? If only.
It feels as though the women in Afghanistan are collateral damage that none of the governments concerned even considered as they decided to withdraw. Colour me surprised that as Donald Trump began the withdrawal, he didn’t consider the outcome for the female of the species. I would have thought that Joe Biden and our own government might have considered it more. Oh well, yes it might be rough for women and girls for a while, but don’t worry, the Taliban have said that it’s all going to be fine. So now we are expecting the little girls of Afghanistan to rely on their own Super Smash Bros to uphold their rights, except they don’t have any brightly coloured controllers to help them.
We are where we are now. The women of Afghanistan don’t have the luxury of time for despair. Action is what is needed. As well as making the resettlement of women – plus women’s rights activists and workers – a clear priority, we must prioritise the needs and rights of Afghan women and girls in any actions taken in response to the situation. Working with the UN we must ensure that Afghan women and girls are involved in shaping any humanitarian response. We must encourage neighbouring countries to keep borders open for evacuations and to facilitate aid, including supporting safehouses and gender-based violence services for women and their families who cannot flee.
We seem to have forgotten the experiences of women and girls in the planning of this withdrawal of troops; we must not forget them going forward. Boris Johnson and Joe Biden can talk tough about the buck stopping with them. Rubbish! In reality, the buck stops with the women of Afghanistan, who will actually shoulder the burden of their decisions. I guess a weight is easier to manage if you always ask someone else to carry it.