Women's Rights and Wrongs

Article excerpt

Should aid organisations be working in a country largely controlled by authorities whose policies and practices abuse human rights? This is a question often asked of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in Afghanistan.

THE QUESTION ARISES BECAUSE OF THE extraordinary military success enjoyed by the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group inspired by an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Koran. Barely 30 months after their appearance on the Afghan scene, they now control three-quarters of the country and threaten the rest. Their Pathan origins and ideological zeal contrast with the war-weariness of the largely Tajik and Uzbek forces they oppose.

The Taliban are not an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. In November 1994 they took the southwest of the country, and in September 1995 entered Herat. There, the impact of their policies, which include shutting schools for girls and preventing women from being employed in offices, caused a stir, not least as Herat has a centuries-old cultural tradition in which women have played a prominent role.

Foreigners in Afghanistan are either aid workers or journalists. Journalists duly reported the threat embodied by the Taliban, though this coverage competed with events in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Aid agencies made little noise, though non-confrontational approaches were made both in writing and meetings by the UN and the NGOs. One NGO, Save the Children Fund, left the city, denouncing Taliban restrictions which it said made aid work impossible, but there was little solidarity from the rest of the aid community with this action.

It was only in late September 1996 that international attention focused on the ethics and policies of the aid community when, to everyone's surprise, the capital fell to the Taliban. Kabul - a city which by regional standards has a liberal tradition, and where tens of thousands of women are employed as civil servants and teachers - was forced overnight to bend to the dictates of a largely illiterate, rural occupying force.


The Taliban advertised their arrival by hanging the body of the former President, Mohammed Najibullah, from a traffic control box. The image of his mutilated body was flashed around the world. Hordes of journalists arrived in Afghanistan and filed stories of repressive Taliban practices. The benefits that Taliban authority has brought to areas they control - including a sharp decrease in theft, disorder and rape - got scant coverage.

Denunciations of the Taliban soon followed, most vocally from the heads of aid agencies themselves, for example from Emma Bonino, European Commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid. Catherine Bertini, Head of the World Food Programme, issued a statement which was widely interpreted as threatening suspen* sion of food aid unless Taliban practices changed.

Senior diplomats from donor countries talked about freezing aid funding. Aid officials in the field found themselves under intense pressure to clarify the basis upon which their aid would continue.

At one level the principles governing aid assistance are clear. Official UN documents, including the Secretary-General's statement of October 1996 and the 1997 Consolidated Appeal for Afghanistan, issued in December 1996, reiterate the need to implement programmes in accordance with the norms and standards enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, international humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But putting principles into aid practice is another matter. The track record of aid agencies in ensuring that human rights considerations are systematically incorporated into programming is not impressive. Yet awareness of gender issues, until very recently, has been low and not consistently incorporated into project selection, design, management and implementation.

Of the dozen or so UN agencies active in Afghanistan, none is headed by a woman, and females are scarce in responsible posts. …