Britain has a responsibility to lead an international refugee plan for Afghan women and girls
4 min read
After 20 years of female education and access to work, women journalists, lawyers, members of parliament, activists and NGO workers have vanished from public sight.
Campaigning for women’s equality has often felt like campaigning for peace in a war zone. Campaigning for the equality of Afghan women and girls is a battle on all fronts. But you take on a battle based on its importance, not on how easy it might be to win.
Back in 2006, I reported for Reuters from Camp Bastion in Helmand province. Securing women’s rights had been placed at the heart of the fight against the Taliban and the US-led international military intervention and were quoted by multiple officials as a key part of the UK’s role. But work on civic rights lagged far behind the diversion of military battle.
After 20 years of inching towards equality, the Taliban backlash is more ferocious than ever
We are late to evaluate and reflect on our role in Afghanistan and how to contribute to the current situation. And women’s rights are now being washed away.
Tomorrow, Parliament meets to discuss what it can sort out from the chaos left by the departure of Western troops as global media shows desperate Afghans climbing walls and clinging on to departing airplanes to try to escape Taliban rule. The images show very few women. After 20 years of female education and access to work, women journalists, lawyers, members of parliament, activists and NGO workers have vanished from public sight.
Reports tell of women being denied entry to university and offices; of beauty salons being boarded up and men going door to door making lists of females from 12-45 years old to be forced into the rape and slavery of "marriage" to Taliban fighters. After 20 years of inching towards equality - women and girls still suffered terribly - the Taliban backlash is more ferocious than ever.
We have to get women and girls out of Afghanistan and commit to serious and strenuous international cooperation so that nations with influence over the Taliban can help the people we can no longer help directly.
With a group of cross-party campaigners and experts, I’ve been working to drive support for an international refugee plan, an accelerated asylum plan for Afghan women and girls most at risk and extended asylum provisions to allow families to come to the UK.
Starting a petition in the middle of a crisis has felt frustratingly simplistic. But showing the British government that saving women and girls has popular support has never been more important, particularly against political tensions that have stoked anti-immigrant feeling in the UK in recent years.
And right now, the UK is in a unique position as current chair of the G7 and key NATO ally to lead the humanitarian response. It is also well placed to use its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to help secure safe passage for refugees. Successive UK governments have defended their relationship with Saudi Arabia against criticism from feminists. Now it is time to prove that the flipside of that awkward alliance means real leverage.
Our campaign also calls for help on the ground for those who can’t leave Afghanistan. Of course, this feels enormously ambitious. Accusations of naivety are the most polite I can print among a wave of racist and misogynist trolling that has hit this campaign this week. But rights matter most when they are denied, and the women in Afghanistan still have a right to move freely and safely, to continue to study and work, to have access to healthcare, to participate in politics, law and NGO work without threat or harm. To assume those things are no longer worth fighting for is an abrogation of our collective responsibility for global peace and justice.
As I write this, our Change.Org petition has reached 80,000 signatures in less than 24 hours and is heading for 100,000. Press reports now suggest the government is looking at an asylum scheme that would prioritise women and girls. A phone call, a text message, a briefing, an urging, a signature. They can all say: do this in my name. It’s not too late.
Sophie Walker was the founding leader of the Women's Equality Party.
Zehra Zaidi, Akeela Ahmed, Shabnam Nasimi, Aisha Ali-Khan, Kate Maltby, Olivia Robey, Katherine Mulhern and Sophie Walker are working collectively to support government interventions to protect Afghan women and girls. You can sign the petition HERE.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.