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Under a Labour government, Afghan women and girls will advise on their country’s future

The I Newspaper, 11th August 2023

The Government has slashed Britain’s aid contribution by 59%

Last month, I met Fawzia Koofi. Fawzia was the first female deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament and one of only a few women involved in the intra-Afghan peace talks. She has survived multiple assassination attempts. Fawzia is a formidable champion for women. Yet instead of building a future for all Afghans, she lives here in exile.

Two years on from the Taliban takeover, Afghans deserve and need our solidarity more than ever. More than 29 million people now need humanitarian assistance – 900,000 more than at the start of 2023. Almost three million people are at “emergency” levels of hunger and malnutrition – one step away from famine.

For Afghan women and girls, things have only gotten worse. They are disproportionately affected by the humanitarian crisis and their most fundamental rights also remain under constant attack by the Taliban. According to the UN, progress has already been set back 20 years. Women’s rights to work, travel without a male relative, choose how to dress – or even operate a beauty salon – have all been highly restricted.

It is now 692 long days since girls were first banned from secondary education. The prevention of secondary education is unpopular among Afghans and criticised by the entire Islamic world. Many families have realised that the only chance of education for their daughters is through emigration, as Afghan girls will be denied a chance to realise their talents and fulfil their dreams. Such restrictions fly in the face of all the evidence that women’s inclusion could build a better Afghanistan.

The situation must improve. Britain has both an interest in and a historic responsibility for it doing so. In the months following the West’s withdrawal, we warned that “complete failure to engage is costing lives and not sustainable”. David Lammy and I visited Afghanistan in 2022 with the UN. We were the only British MPs to have visited until Tobias Ellwood made his recent trip; his description of the country sparked huge backlash from women’s rights organisations. His comments showed ignorance of how restricted life has become for Afghan women and his subsequent apology was an important step. In contrast, what I saw first-hand in Afghanistan is a country where women’s rights are violated and women and girls have practically disappeared from public life.

Under the Conservatives, as much as they talk about the importance of gender equality and supporting women and girls, Britain is largely absent. Women and girls’ voices have been pushed to the margins in Afghanistan and years of badly executed aid cuts had already wreaked havoc. This year, no country’s crisis response has been more dramatically defunded than Afghanistan: the Government has slashed Britain’s contribution by 59 per cent. The Government’s own Equalities Impact Assessment, published by Parliament earlier this month, revealed the kind of activities that will now end in Afghanistan: child nutrition, girls’ education, polio vaccinations, and demining programmes.

Britain has an interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan but by deprioritising Afghanistan, there is a real risk that the Conservatives will spark an international race to the bottom among donors: the United Nations’ Humanitarian Response Plan was only 9 per cent funded by mid-2023. It is Afghan women and girls who will pay the greatest price.

It is time for a new approach. In government, Labour will introduce a feminist development policy, ensuring we work with women and girls to tackle deep-rooted gender inequality and violence and harassment against women and girls globally. In Afghanistan, for that approach to succeed, Afghan women and girls themselves must help guide our approach.

Currently, unlike in the US, there is no formal process for Britain’s Afghan community to engage with policy makers. Therefore, Labour would create consultative mechanisms for effective engagement in Whitehall and appoint an advisory group of Afghan women to the FCDO. And to keep the international community’s eyes on the crisis in Afghanistan, Labour would convene a global summit for Afghan women and girls.

Having spoken to Fawzia Koofi, she said: “What the women of Afghanistan are going through is personal for me. For those women who have been part of the progress of their country less than two years ago, the experience of being stranded on the outside looking in as years of progress is steadily erased is devastating.

“Today, Afghan girls are banned from all basic rights again, including education beyond grade six. And recently, if girls are taller and 10 years old they are banned from attending school beyond the third grade in some provinces.

“That is why it is important for the international community to draw clear principles and lines in their engagement with the de facto authorities. And that is why engagement with the women of Afghanistan – listening to them, putting them at the forefront of consultation and engaging with their views and recommendations – is so important.

“I welcome Labour’s plans to prioritise more systematic engagement with Afghan women in Britain and at the international level. Afghan women must not be locked out from dialogue about the future of our country.”

Like Fawzia, the other extraordinary Afghan women I’ve spoken to to develop these policies have all served Afghanistan in different ways. Some are diplomats or academics, others judges or journalists. They all hold in common a steadfast commitment to public service and to women’s rights. There may – for now – be no place for women at the table in Afghanistan as its people navigate humanitarian crisis. But in Britain, Labour will make sure there is space.

Preet Gill is the shadow Secretary of State for International Development of the United Kingdom and Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston

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