By Neeti Banerjee, Founder of TalentNomics Inc.
We may disagree on many issues. We may have differences in who we choose to trust. However, as members of the human race, I hope we can agree on one thing — the moral responsibility we hold to help other human beings in times of crisis. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding and now is the time to act. Now is the time to use our individual voices clearly, and our collective resources strategically, to help the people of Afghanistan — many of whom are at immediate and grave risk of losing their lives, liberty and the basic freedoms that most of us take for granted in other parts of the world today.
This crisis has been triggered by political decisions made by two U.S. Presidents. Former President Donald Trump signed the DOHA peace agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021 (without any safeguards for women and their rights). President Biden then decided to implement that decision and withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. This decision further led to a hasty and chaotic withdrawal of international military forces and closure of diplomatic embassies in Afghanistan. It took only a few weeks to reverse the hard work done by the Afghans, the Americans, NATO, and other global allies over the last 20 years. The undesired outcome: a takeover by the Taliban of most of the country and the capital, Kabul, by August 16. The Afghan President and his inner circle abdicated and escaped to the UAE, abandoning their country. The Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan and has declared it to be the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. It is the same name the same group used for the country when it ruled in the 1990s until it was overthrown by U.S led allied forces after the horrific 9/11 attacks on America.
I am deeply fearful for the women and girls in Afghanistan. These women and girls are on the brink of losing not just their human rights, but also their lives if they dare to speak, write, study, work, visit a public space without a male guardian, or even listen to music of their choice. They may be killed if they choose to stay single. Many more will be forced to marry against their wishes, or forced to become a sex slave to a Taliban or an ISIS fighter.
I have nightmares… it could have easily been me. It could have been you. It could have been any of us. What saved you or me? Was it Kismet? Luck? Destiny? The choices we have made in our lives and the choices we are able to exercise are determined by our environment — the place we are born, the political regime in the country we are born in and where we live today, the choices our parents and our families were able to courageously support.
My parents and grandparents were from Multan, the seventh largest city in Pakistan, in the state of Punjab. In September 2008, a medical college in Multan received bomb threats from the Pakistani Taliban demanding the end of co-ed education. In a nearby city of Kot Addu, the Tehreek-e-Islami Taliban warned women to wear the burqa and threatened them with acid attacks, if they did not comply. In Lahore, the city where my father went to college, cafés popular amongst young couples, were bombed repeatedly. I could have easily been one of the victims had my family not migrated from Multan to India before Pakistan was created. Women’s lives and rights are not safe in any country where the Taliban is active and the government is not able to control their activities.
Call it Kismet. I was born in India. The political regime in India at the time of my birth did not constrain my freedom to choose my path or live my life as I saw fit. I was fortunate my parents were attentive and caring of my health and safety, both psychological and physical. They fully supported my choices regarding education, work and marriage. I could travel without a male guardian. My country today, the United States, continues to guarantee all Americans similar choices and supports our fundamental human rights.
That is regrettably not the situation today for 14.2 million Afghan women and girls who are vulnerable and at risk of losing their lives and their rights. Those most at risk are the women who work, who are educated, who are courageous and willing to speak up for their rights. And ALL those women and girls who do not have powerful and supportive male family members to protect their lives and their human rights.
Take for example an Afghan-based start-up “Ehtesab” founded by a young Afghan woman, Sara Wahedi, which aims to create stronger and safer communities by sending real time alerts on security and traffic updates to users. Sara’s team of 20 is currently working around the clock, some remotely, to keep Afghans safe. They are, however, at risk and fearful for their own lives.
Why should we trust that the Taliban — a regime that practices a 7th century version of Islamic law and that enforced one of the most repressive environments for women and girls in Afghanistan — is going to suddenly change its stance? There is no evidence nor any history that reassures me. And why should Afghan women who have experienced untold horrors under Taliban version 1.0 believe that the Taliban version 2.0 will be a softer, gentler, more tolerant regime that will protect their lives and their rights?
The recent evidence points in the reverse direction. Three Afghan women who worked in media were gunned down in Jalalabad in March this year. In January, two female Supreme Court judges were murdered by unidentified gunmen. An influential woman MP and activist was shot and injured to send a chilling signal to other women activists. On May 8, there was a terrorist bombing outside a girl’s high school in Kabul. Over ninety were killed and hundreds injured with the majority of casualties being adolescent girls. There are credible reports that Taliban commanders have demanded that communities submit lists of unmarried girls of ages 15 and older and widows below the age of 40 so that they can be married to Taliban fighters. Being forced to marry a Taliban fighter is not very different from being sold into slavery. It is sexual abuse hidden under the layer of a forced marriage. In times of war, it is a war crime.
I urge all countries to give safe refuge to Afghans who are vulnerable and at risk including women, children and religious minorities. Preferably while international rescue missions are being mounted. Only a few countries so far have opened their borders to evacuees and refugees and announced special visa programs.
Governments must establish emergency visas and accelerate the process so these vulnerable and at risk persons can be moved quickly out of Afghanistan to a safe location. After this, the policies and arrangements for longer term visas and resettlement can be thoughtfully negotiated and developed.
Canada has announced emergency visas for 20,000 Afghans and evacuated close to that number already. India had established a 6- month emergency visa for any Afghan (irrespective of religious or ethnic background) who wishes to move to India for 6 months. India will also resettle any Afghan Hindus and Sikhs who wish to live in India. The UK will resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees, beginning with 5000 this year. Germany may take 10,000 refugees. It is unclear how many refugees the U.S will resettle. Experts suggest 10,000 by the end September. Other countries need to consider introducing similar options and temporary safe havens for evacuees. Speedy action is crucial.
The global community must also freeze the flow of money to the new Taliban-led Afghanistan. Money, economic and development aid, is the ONLY leverage that governments have in nudging the Taliban Version 2.0 to be kinder, gentler, more humane than Taliban Version 1.0. By using this financial leverage, we may be able to prevent the massacre of Afghan allies who remain in Afghanistan, and negotiate to ensure the safety of women and girls who wish to preserve their fundamental rights and choices.
Germany, one of the largest donors, has already suspended all economic and development aid ($506 million annually). Finland ($30 million) and Sweden ($115 million) have suspended their annual development aid. Other donor countries need to do the same. Afghanistan’s Central Bank’s foreign reserves of $9 billion have been frozen by the U.S and is not accessible to the Taliban. The I.M.F. is delaying the $450 million loan it was planning to give the Afghan government. The Afghan population will be devastated economically by these measures so it is imperative to establish alternative ways of providing humanitarian aid and economic support to civilians, local and international non-profit organizations, hospitals, and independent media and journalists.
In times of a crises, all of us have to come together to find solutions: some interim to stop the bleeding wounds, some to alleviate the pain, and other salves that are more holistic and longer term.
So what can we, as concerned individuals, do? Let me suggest a few options:
1. Contact one of the many credible NGOs working to support Afghan refugees in your country or internationally, and offer your assistance. Inquire about what is needed in your country or in Afghanistan to support women and children. UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency, is one of several international aid agencies that continues to be currently active in Afghanistan.
2. Offer to support one or more women/ girls who have been evacuated or received refuge in your country. Help with information, food, transportation, housing, clothing (business clothing, in particular). Mentor, guide, and connect these individuals. Help them find employment, paid internship, or a suitable school for their children. Accelerate their understanding of the health-care system, the transportation system, and the education system, so they can access the available resources. Help them strengthen their local language skills. Share information on the cultural norms and business practices of the country. Help them adapt to life in the new country.
3. Welcome them as part of your inner circle and help them succeed in their new life.
4. Use your voice with your elected representatives and community leaders to strengthen awareness and build support.
5. Donate generously whatever you can. Although governments can provide visas and financial resources to help support refugees, and the U.S. has just approved a $500 million budget for Afghan refugees, I can assure you that governmental resources will not be adequate. Direct assistance — both in kind as well as financial support — from the people in every country will be needed to fill in the funding gaps.
I hope and trust that our political leaders will now do what they have to do, thoughtfully and inclusively, to manage and mitigate the political, economic and humanitarian crisis as it further unfolds. For the rest of us, it is time to show our humanity.
In the midst of this gloom, I see a few sparks of light. A few lotuses still blooming in a fetid swamp. Let us ensure that they thrive and more bloom. Most Afghanis are currently operating at great personal risk. They need our support. Let us find them and fund them. They should be assured that many of us are behind them and support them.
It is time to act. We need to do whatever we can to help our Afghan sisters. Let our hearts lead our actions.