A UN delegation that held talks with senior Taliban officials in Afghanistan has made progress on women’s rights, UN Under-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told Al Jazeera on Saturday, warning that much remains to be achieved.
The high-level meeting earlier this week comes amid widespread criticism of the ruling Taliban for banning women from universities and NGOs last month. Millions of high school girls are already confined to their homes as schools remain closed. The Taliban have reneged on promises for women’s rights and media freedom since coming to power in August 2021 after the fall of the Western-backed government.
“There is some progress. Some exceptions were made to the decrees that covered the health sector,” said Mohammed, who led the delegation, referring to the resumption of work of three non-governmental organizations last week.
“I think it’s because the international community, and in particular the partners who fund this, have been able to show the implications and the impact of woman-to-woman services, especially childbirth,” she added.
It’s not enough, she said, adding that this is just the beginning. “We have opened a crack and hopefully through the twists and turns we can eventually get to a stage where we neutralize these decrees and women go back to school, girls go back to work and of course.”
The 61-year-old UN diplomat said her delegation met with cabinet members, including the foreign minister, the deputy prime minister and the minister for refugees and returnees.
The group also met with the governor of Kandahar, as well as the Shura (leadership council), which is responsible for making many key decisions in the country.
“I was always very clear that I was going there as an opportunity to broadcast the voices of Afghan women. We heard from young women who said, ‘We don’t need your voice, what we need is for you to amplify ours,'” Mohammed said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“I was very focused on getting those messages across.”
“It’s important to have a conversation”
Mohammed, a senior UN female official, described the current laws on women’s education and the workplace as a “deviation” from the teachings of Islam, but stressed the need to engage with the Taliban.
“It’s very important to go there and try to have a conversation with them and they did,” she added.
“What we saw was an understanding … of how important this is for girls’ rights and women’s rights in education. They all didn’t… didn’t push that away. But what they said was that … it’s a work in progress and they’re going to come back to us with the new framework around which they’re going to protect women who are going to have access to education and also to the workplace, ” Mohammed, who is the first Muslim Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, said.
Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the “unprecedented, systematic attacks on the rights of women and girls” which he said were “creating gender-based apartheid”.
Abdul Qahar Balki, a spokesman for the Taliban’s foreign ministry, said some non-governmental organizations were trying to create what he called “social change” in Afghanistan.
But he says the Taliban allow organizations to operate if they are in line with the country’s values.
Those NGOs who committed to the “basic principle of NGO work [such as] impartiality and neutrality’ have been granted exemptions in some areas, including health, Balhi told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
Mohammed, a former environment minister in the Nigerian government, before visiting Kabul, addressed the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has expressed concern over restrictions on women.
The OIC, the group of Muslim nations, issued a statement saying that what is happening in Afghanistan is against the holy Quran and Islam.
Mohammed also said she was “surprised” by the Taliban’s “need and desire to be recognized.”
To date, no country in the world has recognized the Taliban-led government since they swept to power 17 months ago, weeks before the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces after 20 years of war and occupation.
Western nations and others urged the group to remove restrictions on women’s rights and make the government more representative.
Asked if the UN itself would recognize the group, Mohammed, the UN envoy, said: “I hope there will be a day when we recognize this government, provided it is based on the principles that they must understand and support as part of an international family.”
“But I’m really afraid that what we’re doing is catching women and girls in the crossfire, and it’s really important that we don’t do that.” We have heard the stories of many Afghan women who cannot feed their children because of this,” she added.
“These are painful stories about women who don’t know where the next meal is coming from.”
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), humanitarian crises in the country have affected 28 million people.
Dozens of Afghans died in the severe cold wave that swept the country.