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Afghanistan: Humanitarians await guidelines on women’s role in aid operations

Representing the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), they stressed that the world’s largest humanitarian operation – supporting some 28 million people in Afghanistan – simply cannot function without women staff. 

The officials reported on their mission to the country last week, in the wake of the edict prohibiting Afghan women from working with local and international aid agencies, announced on 24 December. 

Days later, the de facto Taliban authorities authorized women to continue working in healthcare.   

A similar exception was made in education, though focused on the primary level as Afghan girls and women have been barred from attending high school and university. 

A clear message 

In their meetings with the Taliban, the IASC mission expressed opposition to the ban, which they hoped would be rescinded, and advocated for exemptions in all aspects of humanitarian action. 

They were told that guidelines are being developed, and were asked to be patient, said Martin Griffiths, UN relief chief and the IASC chair, speaking during a press conference at UN Headquarters. 

“I’m somebody who doesn’t like to speculate too much, because it is a matter of speculation.  Let’s see if these guidelines do come through. Let’s see if they are beneficial. Let’s see what space there is for the essential and central role of women in our humanitarian operations,” he said.  

“Everybody has opinions as to whether it’s going to work or not. Our view is that the message has clearly been delivered: that women are central, essential workers in the humanitarian sector, in addition to having rights, and we need to see them back to work.” 

Women’s vital role 

Humanitarians will require $4.6 billion to fund their activities in Afghanistan this year. 

Three years of drought-like conditions, economic decline, and the impacts of four decades of conflict, have left roughly two-thirds of the population, 28 million people, dependent on aid, with six million on the brink of starvation. 

Women comprise 30 per cent of the 55,000 Afghan nationals working for NGOs in the country, according to Janti Soeripto, President and Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children. 

“Without women on our teams, we cannot provide humanitarian services to millions of children and women,” she said. 

“We won’t be able to identify their needs; communicate to female heads of households, of which there are many in Afghanistan after years and years of conflict, and to do so in a safe and culturally appropriate way.” 

Lives at risk 

Furthermore, many women aid workers are themselves the sole breadwinners for their families, which means many more households will go wanting. 

“We’ve made it very clear that humanitarian aid must never be conditional, and it cannot discriminate,” said Ms. Soeripto.  “We were not there to politicize aid. We cannot do this work without women in all aspects of our value chains.” 

The loss of these valuable workers also comes as Afghanistan is facing its coldest winter in 15 years, with temperatures falling to nearly -30 degrees Celsius, resulting in numerous deaths. 

The IASC mission visited a clinic on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, run by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a local partner. 

Services restored 

Critical health and nutrition services there are up and running again now that women staff are back on board, said Sofía Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General of CARE International. 

The clinic’s staff also shared a horrific statistic, as 15 per cent of the children who seek help suffer from severe acute malnutrition. 

“So, let there be no ambiguity. Tying the hands of NGOs by barring women from giving life-saving support to other women will cost lives,” she said, speaking from Kabul. 

During their meetings with the de facto authorities, the humanitarian chiefs also pushed for the full inclusion of girls and women in public life. 

Huge learning loss 

More than one million Afghan girls have lost out on learning due to the order banning them from secondary school, which has added to losses sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The university ban, announced last month, has further crushed their hopes, said Omar Abdi, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Programmes.  

“We are very concerned about girls’ and women’s development and particularly their mental health. In 2023, if secondary school education remains closed, an estimated 215,000 girls who attended grade six last year will once again be denied the right to learn,” he said. 

Despite the bleak outlook, Mr. Abdi pointed to a few positive signs.

Room for hope 

Since the ban, some 200,000 girls continue to attend secondary schools in 12 provinces, and women secondary school teachers continue to receive their salaries. 

“The officials we met in Kabul…reaffirmed that they are not against girls learning in secondary schools, and again promised to re-open once the guidelines are approved by their leader,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the number of community-based education classes in private homes and other locations has doubled to 20,000 over the past year, serving some 600,000 children, more than half of them girls. 

“These positive signs are the results of both the commitment from the de facto authorities and pressure from local communities to keep schools and community schools open,” said Mr. Abdi. 

“As long as communities continue to demand education, we must continue to support both public and other forms of education, community-based classrooms, catch-up classes and vocational training.” 

 

UN deputy chief reminds Taliban: Islam does not ban women from education 

Traveling with UN Women chief Sima Bahous, and other senior officials, she told journalists on Thursday that she had informed Taliban leaders that a society based on exclusion and repression could never flourish. 

The first goal of the visit focused on “solidarity and the importance of women’s rights…with a view to education, secondary and tertiary”.  

‘Double jeopardy’ 

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The deputy UN chief stressed that non-discrimination is vital, and that sustainable peace could not be achieved when the rights of women are ignored.  

When speaking directly to fundamentalist Taliban leaders about humanitarian principles, she reminded them that they were “wiping out” women from the workplace, she told correspondents in New York on Wednesday. 

Drawing attention to their impacts in the fields of medicine and education, the deputy UN chief highlighted the need to push the issue to “the very limits”.  

Moreover, the deterioration of humanitarian spaces constitutes “double jeopardy” because it impacts women’s rights and costs lives. 

Pushing limits 

However, she acknowledged, “it is a tough call” when saving lives and maintaining women’s and children’s rights. 

“[There is] a difficult tension and a very fine line to navigate, as we do this, but we tried the best that we could”, said Ms. Mohammed. 

When the Taliban said it would restore rights to women and girls in due course, she questioned whether their actual time span referred to 10, 20 or 50 years’ time.  

“Let’s have a timeline. Let’s be very specific about this”, she pressed. They had indicated that it would be soon, she added. 

Consultative visits 

The UN delegation also held meetings relating to the Afghanistan crisis in Türkiye, Indonesia, some of the Gulf States – including Saudi Arabia – Kazakhstan, the United Kingdom, and within the European Union.  

Describing the trip as a “whole of society, government approach”, she maintained that “the international community needs to have that unified response”. 

In the capital Kabul, she recounted that women urged her to “meet with us first and not last, so you really do hear what we want to say going in”.  

They held meetings with former President Hamid Karzai, former Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah and a host of high-level officials as well as with women from NGOs, UN staff, and youth working with UN Women.  

Ms. Mohammed detailed meetings in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and Herat, where the Taliban complained of not being given due credit for reforms. 

“We reminded them that even in the case where they talked about rights, edicts that they had promulgated for protecting women, they were giving rights with the one hand and taking away with the other, and that was not acceptable”. 

Women and children have been the most impacted by the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
UNAMA/Shamsuddin Hamedi

Women and children have been the most impacted by the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Red flags 

For the UN, she said the Taliban’s aim of creating an environment that protects women – such as structures on education and the curriculum; work and the hijab – “are all red flags that we need to look at and to see that we are not completely losing all rights for women and children”. 

While there is no history of the Taliban reversing any edicts, the senior UN official flagged that “what we have seen” are exemptions which, if we keep pushing, will “water down the edicts to the point where we will get women and girls back into the workplace”. 

She reminded that UN Humanitarian Coordinator Martin Griffiths is there currently, building on humanitarian work underway since last year. 

“I hope this trip has contributed to reinforcing our demands that these bans are reversed, reinforcing the demands of women’s rights and girl’s rights to be respected”, she stated.   

No ‘one-fix wonder’ 

Further engagement is needed, because there is no “one-fix wonder”, Ms. Mohammed said, adding that space must be created to unify the international community. 

The Deputy Secretary-General, who is herself a Muslim, called on Islamic and neighbouring countries to “take much more of a stand”.  

“Every time I went to one of these Muslim countries, they did reinforce the fact that Islam did not ban women from education or from the workplace”, she said, encouraging forward action by building on that momentum.   

“They are the neighbours, they are engaging”, said the UN deputy chief, calling for concerted international support, to restore “what we lost in the last few months”. 

We will never forget the women and girls of Afghanistan. On behalf of the @UN, @unwomenchief and @khiari_khaled — we are committed to find a way forward for women and girls to be seen and their human rights respected. https://t.co/IyWjC8JOAv

‘Equal rights cannot wait’ on International Day of Women in Multilateralism

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay made the appeal in her message to mark the International Day of Women in Multilateralism, which highlights their role in building peace and ensuring sustainable development. 

It also provides an opportunity to advocate for increased representation of women in key decision-making positions in global collaboration. 

‘Incomprehensible inequality gap’  

“Celebrating their achievements, their views and their devotion also means drawing attention to the incomprehensible inequality gap which in too many contexts continues to exist between women and men,” said Ms. Azoulay. 

She warned that at the current rate, it would take more than 130 years to reach gender parity, citing information from the World Economic Forum. 

 “Equal rights cannot wait,” said Ms. Azoulay. For this reason, UNESCO has made fighting gender inequalities a global priority, together with breaking down deeply ingrained stereotypes, she added. 

Fighting harassment online 

Building equality through multilateralism implies acknowledging the role women have in the process, and ensuring that all who want to work for change draw inspiration from them, the UNESCO chief said. 

It also implies making strong commitments, and implementing them, especially in multilateral forums.   

“This is why on International Day of Women in Multilateralism 2023, we are focusing on a commitment at the heart of UNESCO’s raison d’être:  the fight against hate speech, with a particular emphasis on the issue of harassment of and violence against women in the digital environment,” she said. 

Undermining democracy 

The matter is urgent, as evidenced by a recent UNESCO survey of women journalists, one of the professional groups that is most affected. 

The survey revealed that 73 per cent reported having been subjected to online violence in the course of their work.  

“When women are targeted because they are women, a certain view of public debate and a fundamental requirement for democracy are also undermined,” said Ms. Azoulay. 

Gendered disinformation 

UNESCO is holding a global dialogue at its Paris headquarters on the International Day, to advance effective responses to online gendered disinformation. 

Recommendations will inform the agency’s ongoing work to establish principles for the regulation of digital platforms, so that information is a “public good” while preserving freedom of expression. 

They will also contribute to a UNESCO Conference on shaping digital platform regulation that will be held in February, bringing together representatives from governments, civil society, the private sector, academia, the tech community and other stakeholders. 

“This is precisely the point of this International Day: mobilizing the international community to support equal rights and dignity for all – particularly women and girls,” said Ms. Azoulay. 

‘We are not afraid’: Indigenous Brazilian women stand up to gender violence

In Parque das Tribos, an indigenous neighbourhood in Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazonas state, violence against women is not uncommon.

“As a leader, I have experienced many things,” says Lutana Ribeiro, a member of the Kokama ethnic group, and the only female chief in Parque das Tribos, which is home to around 4,500 people. “Women knock on my door asking for help.”

Sparsely populated and relatively isolated in terms of air, road and sea access, the state of Amazonas faces particular challenges in access to public services, including for sexual and reproductive health support and gender-based violence response.

Indigenous Brazilian women discuss gender violence in a UNFPA workshop.
UNFPA Brazil/Isabela Martel

Indigenous Brazilian women discuss gender violence in a UNFPA workshop.

Huge increase in femicide

In 2021, at least one person called the national police emergency number in Brazil every minute to report domestic violence. From 2016 to 2021, the rate of femicide – defined as the intentional killing of a woman, motivated at least in part by her gender – was reported to have increased by over 44 per cent, with one woman dying as a result of femicide every seven hours.

In the state of Amazonas, of all women killed intentionally by another person, more than one in five were cases of femicide.

Ms. Ribeiro, who is well known among her community as a staunch defender of human rights, recently facilitated a series of workshops for survivors of gender-based violence, which were attended by 50 women from the area. “On the first day, few spoke. Today, most of them have spoken.”

The workshops, run by the UN reproductive and sexual health agency, UNFPA, explored different types of violence and explained how to access local social support networks and available legal protection mechanisms.

These include the Maria da Penha Law, which changed Brazil’s penal code in 2006 to not only allow for aggressors to be arrested for an act of violence against a woman or girl, but also for them to be detained, if the risk of them committing such an act was deemed a threat to a person’s life.

Drawings by children of indigenous Brazilian women participating in UNFPA workshops.
UNFPA Brazil/Isabela Martel

Drawings by children of indigenous Brazilian women participating in UNFPA workshops.

A safe space for women

Ms. Ribeiro described how, from the second day of the workshop, the women were eager to share their experiences with each other and with the UNFPA team. “After the first lecture, many women felt stronger. The next day, people said ‘enough’ to violence. These men will no longer do what they want with them, because now the women are more empowered.”

The workshops are aimed at training women from indigenous communities to help spread life-saving information among their friends, family, and peers.

Children also joined in recreational activities so their mothers could attend. “The initiative was very important for us to become increasingly stronger and have this support through dialogue and experience,” says Ms. Ribeiro.

“The workshops created a safe space for women to reflect together on the different forms of violence that affect their daily lives and on coping strategies,” says Débora Rodrigues, head of the UNFPA office in Manaus, “which include expanding the supply of and access to services that guarantee protection and rights for all the Parque das Tribos community”.

With financial support from the United States Agency for International Development, UNFPA is implementing projects across Brazil’s northern states of Amazonas and Roraima to strengthen the local capacities in preventing and confronting gender-based violence.

In 2022, more than 36,000 women and girls benefited from the initiative, with increased access to services such as shelters and safe spaces for survivors, as well as workshops that also engaged men and boys.

Ms. Ribeiro says the participants in the Parque das Tribos workshop felt collectively strengthened, asserting: “We, as indigenous people, are not afraid.”

Afghanistan: Top UN delegation tells Taliban to end confinement, deprivation, abuse of women’s rights

Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, the Executive Director of UN Women, Sima Bahous, and the Assistant Secretary-General for UN political, peacebuilding and peace operations, Khaled Khiari, spend four days on a fact-finding mission in Afghanistan, to engage with Taliban leaders, and “underscore UN solidarity with the Afghan people”, according to a press release issued to correspondents on Friday. 

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Call to reverse course

In meetings with de facto authorities in Kabul and Kandahar, “the delegation directly conveyed the alarm over the recent decree banning women from working for national and international non-governmental organizations, a move that undermines the work of numerous organizations helping millions of vulnerable Afghans.”

The latest clampdown on working women followed edicts from the fundamentalist Taliban to close universities to female students, until further notice, and preventing girls from attending secondary school.

Excluded from public life

Women and girls have also been ordered to stop using parks, gyms, public bath houses, and banned from most areas of the workforce, together with other restrictions on their freedom of movement, in line with the authorities’ interpretation of Sharia law.

The ban on local women working in the crucial aid sector came into force last month, prompting many aid agencies to suspend operations, as they were unable to reach many families in need, without the support of female staff.

In response, Taliban rulers did announce some exemptions, that would allow women health workers to go about their lifesaving work.

All Afghans suffer due to restrictions: Mohammed

“My message was very clear”, said the UN deputy chief. “While we recognize the important exemptions made, these restrictions present Afghan women and girls with a future that confines them in their own homes, violating their rights and depriving the communities of their services”.

“Our collective ambition is for a prosperous Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbours, and on a path to sustainable development. But right now, Afghanistan is isolating itself, in the midst of a terrible humanitarian crisis and one of the most vulnerable nations on earth to climate change,” she added. “We must do everything we can to bridge this gap.” 

During their mission, Ms Mohammed and Ms Bahous met with affected communities, humanitarian workers, civil society and other key actors, in Kabul, the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, and Herat. 

‘Extraordinary resilience’: Bahous

We have witnessed extraordinary resilience. Afghan women left us no doubt of their courage and refusal to be erased from public life. They will continue to advocate and fight for their rights, and we are duty bound to support them in doing so,” UN Women’s top executive Ms. Bahous said. 

“What is happening in Afghanistan is a grave women’s right crisis and a wakeup call for the international community.

“It shows how quickly decades of progress on women´s rights can be reversed in a matter of days. UN Women stands with all Afghan women and girls and will continue to amplify their voices to regain all their rights.”

UN commitment

The United Nations and its partners, including national and international non-governmental organizations, are helping more than 25 million Afghans who depend on humanitarian aid to survive, and remain committed to staying and delivering. 

“While the recent exemptions to the ban introduced by the de facto authorities are opening spaces for humanitarians to continue – and in some cases resume – operations, these remain limited to few sectors and activities”, said the UN statement on Friday. 

The Taliban's restrictions on women and girls in Afghanistan will exclude women from participation in political activities such as voting, as it was for this woman at the Bamyan polling center for Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, which were held on…
UNAMA/Abbas Naderi

The Taliban’s restrictions on women and girls in Afghanistan will exclude women from participation in political activities such as voting, as it was for this woman at the Bamyan polling center for Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, which were held on the 20th of October 2018.

Need for ‘effective delivery’

“The effective delivery of humanitarian assistance is predicated on principles that require full, safe and unhindered access for all aid workers, including women”, Ms Mohammed said. 

The visit to Afghanistan followed a series of high-level consultations on Afghanistan across the Gulf and Asia, the UN reported.

The delegation met with the leadership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Islamic Development Bank, groups of Afghan women in the Turkish and Pakistani capitals of Ankara and the Islamabad, and a group of Ambassadors and Special Envoys to Afghanistan, based in Doha. 

“The delegation convened with government leaders from the region and religious leaders to advocate for the crucial role and full participation of women and rally support for the Afghan people”, the statement added.

Girls play volleyball at a school in Herat, Afghanistan, in 2016.
UNAMA

Girls play volleyball at a school in Herat, Afghanistan, in 2016.

 

Urgent push for support

Throughout the visits, the UN’s crucial role as a bridge builder towards “finding lasting solutions” was emphasized, “as well as the urgency to deliver lifesaving support and maintain effective engagement, led by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).”

The top UN delegation called for efforts to be intensified to reflect the urgency of the crisis facing Afghan women and girls, “and stressed the importance of a unified response by the international community.” 

The UN reported that a proposal to hold an international conference on women and girls in the Muslim World, during March this year, “was also considered and agreed in principle.”

Note to Correspondents following the Deputy Secretary-General @AminaJMohammed’s visit to Afghanistan 👇
https://t.co/ePoMHRfALA

Afghan girls and women made focus of International Education Day: UNESCO

The agency announced on Thursday that it was dedicating the International Day of Education on 24 January, to the country’s women and girls. 

“No country in the world should bar women and girls from receiving an education. Education is a universal human right that must be respected,” said Director-General Audrey Azoulay.  

“The international community has the responsibility to ensure that the rights of Afghan girls and women are restored without delay. The war against women must stop,” she added. 

Fears of a ‘lost generation’ 

Last month, the de facto Taliban authorities in Afghanistan banned young women from universities.  

This followed an earlier directive prohibiting girls from attending secondary school, issued mere months after the fundamentalist group, who ruled in the late 1990s up to 2001, regained power in August 2021, sweeping back into the capital, Kabul. 

As a result, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where women and girls’ access to education has been suspended. 

“The country risks a lost generation as educated women are essential for its development,” UNESCO said earlier this week. 

“Afghanistan – or any other country – cannot advance if half of its population is not allowed to pursue an education and participate in public life.” 

Young girls attend class at a UNICEF-supported school in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (file)
© UNICEF/Mark Naftalin

Young girls attend class at a UNICEF-supported school in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (file)

Gains and losses 

Between 2001 and 2018, Afghanistan recorded a tenfold increase in enrollment across all education levels, from roughly one million to 10 million students, according to UNESCO. 

The number of girls in primary school increased from almost zero to 2.5 million.  By August 2021, they accounted for four out of 10 primary school students. 

Women’s presence in higher education also increased almost 20 fold: from 5,000 students in 2001 to over 100,000 two decades later.  

Today, 80 per cent of school-aged Afghan girls and women, 2.5 million, are out of school.  The order suspending university education for women, announced in December, affects more than 100,000 attending government and private institutions. 

A fundamental right 

UNESCO is calling for immediate and non-negotiable access to education and a return to school for all girls and young women in Afghanistan. 

“Everyone has the right to education. Everybody. But in Afghanistan, girls and women have been deprived of this fundamental right,” said the agency. 

During the past two decades, UNESCO has supported the Afghan education system, including through running a literacy programme that reached over 600,000 young people and adults, 60 per cent of them women.  

Since the Taliban takeover, it has shifted activities to ensure continuity of education through community-based literacy and skills development classes for over 25,000 young people and adults in 20 provinces. 

An advocacy campaign reached over 20 million Afghans to increase public awareness of the right to education for youth and adults, especially young girls and women.

UNESCO is also working on an initiative to ensure reliable education data so that partners can direct funding to meet the most critical outstanding needs. 

UN calls for immediate release of 50 women and girls abducted in Burkina Faso

Unidentified armed groups reportedly kidnapped the women and girls on Thursday and Friday near the town of Arbinda, located in the north. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has strongly condemned the incident. 

‘Spare no efforts’ 

“The Secretary-General calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the abducted women and girls and for their safe return to their families,” UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said in a statement. 

Mr. Guterres urged the authorities to “spare no efforts in bringing those responsible for this crime to justice.” 

He also underlined the UN’s commitment to continue working with the West African country, and international partners, including to enhance the protection of civilians and support efforts towards lasting peace. 

UN rights chief ‘alarmed’ 

The UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, has also called for the perpetrators to be held to account. 

“I am alarmed that dozens of women out to search for food for their families were abducted in broad daylight, in what could be the first such attack deliberately targeting women in Burkina Faso,” he said in a statement on Monday. 

Mr. Türk noted that Arbinda is one of many towns and villages in the north of the country that have been besieged by armed groups since early 2019. 

‘Unprecedented’ insecurity 

This had made it extremely difficult for residents to have access to food, water and other basic goods and services. 

“I call for the immediate and unconditional release of all the abducted women and for the national authorities to promptly conduct an effective, impartial and independent investigation to identify those responsible and hold them to account,” he said. 

Earlier this month, the UN Security Council again heard how countries in West Africa and the Sahel continue to face multiple challenges, including “unprecedented” levels of insecurity. 

Giovanie Biha, Officer-in-Charge of the UN Office for the region, UNOWAS, said activities by armed groups, violent extremists and criminal networks have forced the closure of thousands of schools and health centres, and displaced millions. 

Pakistan: rights experts urge action on coerced religious conversions, child marriage

In their appeal to the authorities to stop the alleged abuse, the experts warned that teenagers had been “kidnapped from their families, trafficked … far from their homes (and) made to marry men sometimes twice their age”.

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The rights experts – who report to the Human Rights Council – cited reports suggesting the involvement of religious authorities and the complicity of security forces and the justice system; although they also acknowledged that Pakistan had already made efforts to pass legislation prohibiting such illegal practices.

‘Immediate steps’ needed

“We urge the Government to take immediate steps to prevent and thoroughly investigate these acts objectively and in line with domestic legislation and international human rights commitments. Perpetrators must be held fully accountable,” the experts said.

In a statement urging Pakistan to uphold the rights of women and children, the group of nearly a dozen independent experts and Special Rapporteurs, maintained that Pakistan’s courts had enabled the perpetrators by accepting “fraudulent evidence” from them, regarding the age of the victims and their willingness to marry and convert to Islam.

‘Justifying’ abuse

They noted that the courts had also sometimes “misused interpretations of religious law to justify victims remaining with their abusers”; the police had also failed victims’ families by refusing to register the abductions, or dismissing them as “love marriages”.

Threat of violence

They said they were “very concerned” that marriages and conversions have taken place “under threat of violence to these girls and women or their families.”

“Abductors force their victims to sign documents which falsely attest to their being of legal age for marriage as well as marrying and converting of free will. These documents are cited by the police as evidence that no crime has occurred.”

The experts said it was imperative that all victims, regardless of religious background, are afforded access to justice and equal protection under the law.

Adopt and enforce the law

“Pakistani authorities must adopt and enforce legislation prohibiting forced conversions, forced and child marriages, kidnapping, and trafficking, and abide by their international human rights commitments to combat slavery and human trafficking and uphold the rights of women and children,” they said.

Special Rapporteurs and other independent experts – such as the five endorsing Monday’s statement from the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls – are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.

The are not UN staff, do not receive any salary, and are independent of any government or organising, serving in their own individual capacity.

#Pakistan🇵🇰: UN experts express alarm at the reported rise in abductions, forced marriages and conversions of girls and young women from religious minorities and call for urgent action.
👉https://t.co/99pO2YZZfd https://t.co/WPTWXMiJhz

Motorbike ambulance saves mothers and babies in Kenya: UNFPA

“I cannot imagine them giving birth without the support of a skilled health professional”, said Mark Epeyon, a community health volunteer at the Katilu hospital in Kenya’s Turkana County.

Since November, the motorbike ambulance has protected lives that would have been lost without prompt transportation to their nearest health facility. 

Help on wheels

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Even before the current climate crisis, skilled birth attendance rates were low in Kenya. Today the maternal death rate remains high, despite some progress, at 342 mothers per 100,000 live births – nearly 90 per cent of which are attributed to inadequate quality of care.

Mathew Bundotich, a medical superintendent at the Katilu hospital, explained that families are now forced to migrate ever further from health facilities in search of water, food and pasture for their animals.

While midwives used to assist at least 60 births every month, he said that the drought has caused ante-natal visits to dwindle.

“We pride ourselves on having recorded zero maternal deaths in our facility over the last year”, said Mr. Bundotich. “But now we have to follow women into their communities in order to reach them”.

Driver on the case

Having worked in the community for more than 11 years, Mr. Epeyon has mastered the art of navigating both on and off-road terrain – quickly locating a mother in urgent need of assistance, even in the most inaccessible areas. 

“I became a community health volunteer because I saw the impact that a lack of proper health information and access to services was having on my people”, he told UNFPA.

“When my wife got pregnant the first time, she gave birth at home. Our child developed health complications that have affected him into adulthood”.

Spreading the word

To reach more women and girls in drought-affected communities, Mr. Epeyon has been going door-to-door, telling others about the motorcycle ambulance, encouraging pregnant women to call him when in need, day or night.

In its first month of operation, the scrambler safely transported five women with obstetric emergencies to the hospital, likely saving their lives and those of their newborns. 

Delivering life

As the motorbike can safely and comfortably transport one patient, an outreach medical worker and emergency supplies for on-site treatment, it has significantly reduced the time needed to deliver essential help to those in remote areas.

“In the past, women have given birth on the roadside while trekking to hospital because they live too far from a health facility”, explained Mr. Epeyon.

“With the motorcycle ambulance, even if a woman delivers on the way, she is able to do so in a dignified manner, on a comfortable stretcher and with the help of a healthcare worker and myself”.

Heartfelt appeal

Due to the ongoing drought, more than 4.3 million Kenyans need humanitarian assistance, including 134,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Through its Response Plan for the Horn of Africa Drought Crisis 2022-2023, UNFPA is appealing for $113.7 million to protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of millions of women and girls across the region.

The ongoing drought has made it much harder for women in Turkana County, Kenya, to access essential health services – a dangerous situation that the UNFPA motorcycle ambulance is helping to address.
©UNFPA/Luis Tato

The ongoing drought has made it much harder for women in Turkana County, Kenya, to access essential health services – a dangerous situation that the UNFPA motorcycle ambulance is helping to address.

Men’s engagement is important in promoting the #sexualhealth of women and girls in the community. Like ambulance operator Mark Epeyon is determined to help mothers deliver safely in the ongoing drought.

https://t.co/HS0xup9qIy

© UNFPA/Luis Tato https://t.co/P0URGzj6yr

2022 Year In Review: Celebrating women fighting for their rights

It often takes considerable bravery to stand up for the rights of women. The UN, which is committed to empowering women and girls, works relentlessly with activists and organizations across the world, to protect women from abuse, support health initiatives, and improve lives.

Afghan students stand to perform graduation pledges during their degree-award ceremony at a university in Herat, Afghanistan.
UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Graduating university students in Afghanistan. Women are now banned form attending university and high school (file)

Women living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan

August marked one year since the Taliban seized control once more, of Afghanistan, sparking widespread fears for women’s rights there, which were severely eroded during the regime’s previous time in power during the late 1990s.

Twelve months on, UN Women announced that the agency was committed to continue the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan, the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school, and effectively barred from political participation.

We marked the anniversary of Taliban rule by telling the stories of some of the women who have decided to stay in the country, even though their lives have been turned upside down.

They include Zarina*, formerly one of Afghanistan’s youngest entrepreneurs, who was forced to close her formerly thriving bakery, amid growing restrictions on women-owned businesses; Nasima*, a peacebuilder and women’s rights activists, who was forced to shut down most of her projects, but later managed to restart some initiatives; and Mahbouba Seraj, a veteran rights defender, who vowed to stay on and bear witness to what is unfolding in her country.

Ms. Seraj had a sobering message for those who think that Afghanistan is an exceptional case: “what is happening to the women of Afghanistan can happen anywhere, she said. “Roe v. Wade [the case that led to the national right to abortion in the US, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2022] destroyed years of progress, taking away the rights of women over their own bodies. Women’s rights being taken away from them is happening everywhere and if we are not careful, it will happen to all the women of the world”.

*Names changed to protect identities

Protesters gather in Stockholm, Sweden, after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran's morality police.
Unsplash/Artin Bakhan

Protesters gather in Stockholm, Sweden, after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini (file)

Mahsa Amini: the inspiration for widespread Iranian protests

In November, The UN human rights office, OHCHR, condemned the response of the Iranian regime to protestors demonstrating against the government, in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in police custody in September, after being detained for wearing her hijab incorrectly, according to the so-called morality police.

Her death led to demonstrations in many Iranian cities, including protest by high-school age girls. The Iranian government responded by arresting thousands of protestors, including women, children, youth, and journalists.

On 22 November, OHCHR stated that, in just one week, more than 40 people had been killed in protests, including two teenagers, and two days later, the Human Rights Council created a fact-finding mission in relation to the demonstrations.

“It pains me to see what is happening in the country,” UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Türk told those attending the session which voted in favour of the mission. “The images of children killed. Of women beaten in the streets. Of people sentenced to death”.

The growing international condemnation of the Iranian crackdown was reflected in the decision by members of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) on 14 December.

The CSW, which meets annually in March at UN Headquarters in New York, is described as the biggest gathering of gender equality advocates in the world.

The United States introduced the resolution, which received 29 votes in favour and eight against, with 16 countries abstaining.

Women who are part of a female farming cooperative tend to their crops in Chipata, Zambia.
© UNICEF/Karin Schermbrucker

Members of a female farming cooperative in Chipata, Zambia.

Women tackling the climate crisis

The climate crisis has been shown to disproportionately affect women and girls. In the weeks leading up to International Women’s Day, which is celebrated on 6 March, we highlighted the ways in which women activists improve their local environment, and help their community to adapt to an increasingly hostile climate.

They include Mexican violinist Martha Corzo, who led and inspired a group of some 17,000 local environmental activists, devoted to protecting the remote and beautiful Sierra Gorda; a group of women in Niger who have integrated refugees and migrants in their bid to stave off desertification by creating a thriving market garden; and a mechanical engineer in Kenya who had to fight gender discrimination to develop practical and affordable energy solutions.

In May, Cameroonian activist Cécile Ndjebet’s efforts to improve the lives of those who depend on forests were recognized, when she was awarded the 2022 Wangari Maathai Forest Champions Award, which is chaired by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In Cameroon, roughly 70 per cent of women live in rural areas and are dependent at least in part on harvesting wild forest products for their livelihoods. However, in some communities, women cannot own forest land, inherit it if their husband dies, or even plant trees on degraded land.

“Men generally recognize the great role women play in improving families’ living standards,” she said at the ceremony, “but it is important for them also to agree that, for women to continue to play that role, and even improve in that role, they need secure access to land and forests”. 

Women in blue

UN women peacekeepers and police, continued to serve with distinction in some of the most dangerous postings in the world, facing challenges such as threats from terrorist attacks, and violence fuelled by a COVID-era surge in misinformation and disinformation, amid increasing political tensions, and deteriorating security situations.

On the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, in May, Major Winnet Zharare of Zimbabwe was presented with the Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award, in recognition of her work with the UN Mission in South Sudan, where she was a strong champion for gender equality and women as decision-makers and leaders.

“Her diligence and diplomatic skills quickly gained the trust of local military commanders who sought her advice on women’s rights and protection”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the ceremony. “Her approach helped UNMISS strengthen bonds with local communities and deliver on its mandate.”

In July, at a historic ceremony in South Sudan, members of the first-ever deployment of UN Peacekeepers from Liberia, including several women, were honoured with the prestigious UN Medal.

Their achievement symbolized the huge turnaround in the fortunes of Liberia, which suffered a brutal civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s, before reaching a ceasefire, monitored by the UN Mission in the country, UNMIL, which also supported humanitarian and human rights activities; and assisted in national security reform, including national police training and formation of a new, restructured military.

“Our experience of a 14-year civil war and the impact that UN peacekeepers had, is real and tangible for the people we are on the ground to serve,” said UN Police (UNPOL) officer Elfreda Dennice Stewart. “We benefited so much from peacekeepers, and it is our honour to now serve in this young nation under the iconic blue flag.”

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amplifyHER: celebrating exceptional women artists

Finally, we encourage you to subscribe to amplifyHER, a new series from UN Podcasts, celebrating the work and inspiring careers of some of the most exciting women singers, from around the world.

Many women produce art in the face of, and sometimes inspired by, the challenges they face in society, whether related to insecurity, human rights, climate change, inequality, or simply because of their gender.

In amplifyHER, we hear directly from talented women singers about their experiences in the music industry, from teenage Thai rapper Milli, to EDM powerhouse Faouzia, and Emel, the voice of the Tunisian revolution.

You can find amplifyHER, on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Castbox, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts.

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