U.N. faces catch-22 in Afghanistan policy

Last week, Taliban youths in Kabul, Afghanistan publicly beat three women, while their children stood by crying, simply because their ankles were exposed. In not completely covering themselves, they violated the strict Islamic code recently imposed on the city by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement.
Until the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing last year, the United Nations had little control over the treatment of women by groups like the Taliban. But the conference made a bold change, claiming that in all instances the fundamental rights of women supersede the rights of religious factions.
The United Nations responded to the situation in Kabul by warning the Taliban that the complex web of U.N. relief programs in Afghanistan would be curtailed if they continue to violate the rights of women. But the United Nations now faces a policy catch-22: The aid they threaten to withdraw goes to the very people they are trying to protect.
Afganistan is a nation of widows. Decades of conflict, both with the former Soviet Union and a civil war, have left an estimated 25,000-30,000 widows in Kabul alone, many of whom are the sole supporters of extended families. As such, women are the core of the workforce and have assumed prominent roles in their society. The Taliban code, however, prohibits women from working outside of the home, keeps girls from going to school and forces women to appear in public in head-to-foot shrouds. Women physicians and nurses, for example, can’t go to work, and understaffed hospitals and clinics are further crippled.
Although the Taliban have vowed to modify their policies to allow women to go to work while still adhering to Islamic code, women in provinces conquered by the Taliban two years ago are still waiting for those promised changes. The women of Kabul, deprived of their income, are growing increasingly desperate and dependent on the Red Cross and U.N. relief organizations for food. So how, then, can the United Nations justify curbing programs that support women in order to advance women’s rights?
The answer lies in the way aid is distributed in Afghanistan and the ultimate political goals of the Taliban. The United Nations is represented in Afghanistan by at least 10 different agencies, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the World Food Program. The Taliban are directly dependent on these programs. Cutbacks in aid carefully directed toward them could have a dramatic effect on their willingness to discuss women’s issues. Also, unlike some fundamentalist movements, the Taliban show signs of possible compromise. They see themselves as the fairest political force in a country torn apart by years of strife. Taliban leaders want international political recognition, even so much as a U.N. seat, and they know they’ll eventually have to give ground on some key issues
Afghanistan presents a direct challenge for the United Nations’ new, outspoken stance on women’s rights. The promises made in Beijing sound great, but implementing a strong women’s rights agenda in countries where it runs contrary to dominant religions and cultures is a difficult proposition. The United Nations must play its cards carefully yet forcefully if it is to affect the plight of women in this troubled region.