We must not give up on the women of Afghanistan
Preet Kaur Gill visits Afghanistan, 2022
With the country in crisis and millions facing famine, it is unconscionable to stop Afghan women working and learning in universities. Our government must act urgently to help save lives, restore women’s rights and resettle refugees the United Kingdom has promised to help. With a distinct and pragmatic vision for international development, a Labour government would do exactly that.
The Taliban’s recent decisions to ban female students from university – and then stop women working altogether – deprives half the population of both their future and fundamental rights. But they also make a dire humanitarian crisis worse. Already, more than 28 million Afghans – two-thirds of the population – will need urgent assistance this year. As Afghanistan’s winter temperatures plummet, 20 million face acute hunger. From schools to maternity clinics to police stations, basic public services are on the brink of breakdown. And as security worsens and investors withdraw, the economy risks further collapse.
Labour is committed to a new model for international development with the independence needed to make our response to complex crises
When I visited Kabul last year, I saw first-hand how essential women are to Afghans’ prospects of surviving the crisis: not just when educated at university as future doctors and teachers, but as aid workers helping others access everything from food parcels to maternity care. With tens of thousands now unable to work, it is little wonder aid agencies have been forced to halt humanitarian activities. The stark reality is that if the ban is not reversed immediately many lives will be lost.
Yet a path through the crisis is still possible. Across the country, brave Afghans are making clear their widespread opposition to the Taliban’s latest edicts. In solidarity, male students and professors walked out of universities. Even within the Taliban leadership itself, reports suggest a majority oppose the bans.
In the longer term, only a negotiated solution can bring the crisis to an end, with lives saved and women’s rights protected. For that to be viable, humanitarian assistance and firm guarantees on the rights of women and girls are crucial. When I met women’s groups in Afghanistan, their message was clear: do not give up on us. That is why – after the bungled withdrawal from Kabul, a failed merger with the Department for International Development, and nose-diving morale at the Foreign Office – the Conservative government must start 2023 by doing more to bring parties around the table and negotiate a deal.
In 2021, the government inexcusably slashed aid to Afghanistan by £38m. A year ago Andrew Mitchell – now minister for international development – wrote from the backbenches that the then Foreign Secretary “must urgently scale up British aid to Afghanistan”. Instead, overseas aid spending has plummeted.
In government, Labour would do things differently. The UK was the only country in the G7 to abandon our aid spending pledge in the middle of the pandemic. Labour will bring back 0.7 per cent as soon as the fiscal situation allows. Our approach to international development will be explicitly feminist: we will actively support women and girls to fight for their futures and a fairer world. We will fix the Home Office chaos preventing effective refugee resettlement. And we will bring Britain back to the international stage as a serious, trusted partner.
Labour is committed to a new model for international development with the independence needed to make our response to complex crises, like that in Afghanistan, effective, pragmatic and long-term. Working hand in hand, Labour-led development and diplomacy can help unlock protracted crises. For millions of people around the world, it could mean the difference between life and death. As Labour’s international development minister, I want to be able to look those Afghan women I met in the eye and to say hand on heart that Britain did not give up on them in their hour of need. That work begins by standing up for women’s place in society – and playing our part to help the people of Afghanistan out of crisis.
Preet Kaur Gill is Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and shadow international development minister
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