„Afghan women and girls are prisoners in their homes again”

Civil society activist and women’s rights defender Negina Yari is one of the speakers at the Afghanistan Conference on October 7th 2022. She is the executive director of the NGO Afghans4tomorrow and founder of Afghanistan Peace House. We spoke with her about the current situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, her expectations of the German government and why a door for dialogue with the Taliban must be opened.

Dear Negina Yari, as a civil society activist and women’s right defender, how did you experience the Taliban takeover about a year ago?

„It is honestly still hard to express my pain for what has happened. I was leading the non-profit organization Afghans4tomorrow with 120 Employees and 40 per cent female staff at that time. When I woke up on August 15th and saw the news from Herat province, which was fully taken under control by the Taliban, I first cried and wasn’t able to go to the office. The next day, however, I left home in the early morning to visit my office as usual and to conduct the daily management meeting with my staff. At 9.30 am I received a call from a friend and she mentioned that the Taliban were near to our area and recommended us to leave the office. I can’t explain my feelings of that moment. I left the office and closed the door, but with it the door of our hope. It was the start of dark days for Afghan women and girls.“

How would you describe the situation for the women and girls in Afghanistan right now?

„Afghan women and girls are prisoners in their homes again. Everything that was achieved in terms of women rights in the last decades seems eliminated: violence against women is normalized, forced and child marriage increased, women have no right to work and education and are excluded from the government and leadership level. Their voices are killed. I remember how a Taliban came to my office and refused to talk to me: ‘Send your male colleagues. We don’t talk to women’, he said. Since I was the executive director of the organization, he came back the next day and talked to me but with a shawl on his eyes and said: ‘I don’t look at you, because you are a woman.’ It is very hard for the women and girls, who are still in Afghanistan, because the Taliban don’t want to see and speak with women. Most of the educated women were evacuated and left the country, but they are not comfortable with that situation, they lost everything.“

Is it only the authorities or also the family members who put this pressure on women?

„What is happening right now is that the male family members are under a lot of pressure as well. Women are not allowed to go out without a male family member or their husband. If they do so, or if they go out without Hijab, their male family members are punished as well. A father might have the possibility to support one or two daughters by accompanying them in public, but not more. Furthermore, the food and economic crisis makes it harder to take care and feed a lot of family members. So, most  families put a lot of pressure on girls to marry and to pass the responsibility for a woman from one man to another, but they are hopeless as well.“

You have worked as a director for Afghans4Tomorrow, a non-profit organization that also works for women’s economic empowerment. Is the organization still active and how has its work changed?

„Our organization Afghans4Tomorrow is still open and we are working on humanitarian activities, assistance of food and emergency responses. We are especially committed to ensuring that women and girls have access to humanitarian aid. As the recent change happened in Afghanistan, most of the donors have left the country. Generally the focus of projects has changed a lot: Donors are only working for humanitarian assistance, there’s no activity for gender equality and women rights anymore.“

At the Afghanistan Conference in October one priority is to discuss how Afghan civil society can be strengthened from outside. What do you expect from the German government?

„My expectation of the German government is to keep Afghanistan at the first agenda and to not leave alone the Afghan women and girls. The German government is one of the strategic friends of the Afghan civil society. At this moment, what we need is the meaningful engagement of the German government to establish a dialog among Afghan civil society and the Taliban. A door for dialogue must be opened to negotiate about the rights of women and girls. Evacuation is not a solution for Aghanistan.”

What can civil society organizations do to support their colleagues in Afghanistan but also in exile?

„They can support their colleagues who are inside the country by providing technical supports, offering capacity building as well as psychosocial support. They can also be supported through small grants to keep the NGO system alive in Afghanistan. The colleagues who are out of the country can build strong networks for collaboration to find support and resources to face these challenges together.“

How can empowerment of Afghan women and girls under the control of the Taliban regime look like?

„What Afghan women and girls need the most is an international community who puts pressure on the Taliban. They also need Afghan activists in exile who fight for their rights. It’s the responsibility of all Afghan people and women rights defenders to deliver the voices and messages of Afghan women to an international level. To mention just a few things they need, it is obviously the right to work and receive education, to get technical trainings and capacity building or to be present at the leadership level, for example in humanitarian projects.“

What hopes and concerns do you personally have regarding the current situation in Afghanistan?

„My hope is that the international community and Taliban soon come up with an agreement, or at least that a door for dialog opens between the parties to negotiate about solutions. What also gives me hope is that there are still educated and empowered women in Afghanistan. At this moment, we also need the presence of our scholar sisters and Islamic countries sisters to stand with their Afghan sisters. My fear is that if the situation continues like this, Afghan women will be excluded from all the civil rights, but it will also affect other Islamic countries as well. What we definitely need is more action and not only debates and discussions on an international level.“

Negina Yari is executive director of the NGO Afghans4tomorrow and founder of Afghanistan Peace House. She is one of the speakers at our international Afghanistan Conference in Berlin. Find more about the conference here.