UN Security Council Briefing on Afghanistan by Mahbouba Seraj

This statement was made by Ms. Mahbouba Seraj, Executive Director of Afghan Women Skills Development Center, at the United Nations Security Council Meeting on Afghanistan on 26 January. 

Mr. President, Excellencies,

My name is Mahbouba Seraj, I am an Afghan-American women’s rights activist who has been living in Afghanistan since 2003.

Over the last 20 years, the people of Afghanistan — especially women and girls — have fought for equality, human rights, inclusive governance, and peace and security in our country. Yet the hasty exit of the international community from Afghanistan last August has undermined our achievements and dashed our hopes for a democratic nation. The Taliban is once more in control and dismantling our rights daily. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been displaced to countries around the world.[1] And today, in Afghanistan, women are literally being erased from public life, down to the blacking out of women’s faces on advertisements and the beheading of female mannequins in shop windows.[2]

My Afghan sisters and I warned the Security Council and broader international community of this possibility for decades. It pains me to be here before you today to affirm this truth. But we will not be silenced, and you have a tremendous responsibility for keeping the promises you have made to us, the women of Afghanistan, over the years.

My statement today will focus on the responsibility of the Security Council, the UN and the international community for keeping Afghan women’s rights front and center throughout all deliberations on Afghanistan. I will discuss this in relation to:

  • The situation of women’s rights;
  • The humanitarian crisis;
  • The economic and banking crisis; and
  • Engagement with the Taliban.

Women’s rights

Mr. President,

After 20 years of tasting freedom — working, studying, playing sports, performing music — it has taken less than six months to completely dismantle the rights of women and girls across the country. Schooling for Afghanistan’s girls has been jeopardized, especially impacting adolescents and women, the majority of whom are banned from secondary school and university.[3] Many women have fled the country or are prisoners in their own homes, fearful that their religion, ability, sexual orientation or ethnicity might make them a target. Female judges, once celebrated by the international community, are on the run from the very perpetrators they imprisoned.[4]

Women are now required to travel with a mahram, or a male guardian.[5] This has not only restricted their basic freedom of movement, but their ability to live their lives.[6] It has prevented women from reaching their health appointments, escaping situations of domestic violence, and seeking employment.[7] In a country where millions of Afghan women are widows, and thus the sole breadwinners for their children, this rule is sabotaging families’ survival.[8]

While it feels as though the world has given up on Afghan women, we have not. We are in the streets protesting every day, despite the threats, weapons and the violence.[9] We are fighting for our inclusion, for justice and for an end to the repression of our people. But we need your political support and resources to succeed. We need you to stand by us, and ensure that Afghan women are equal partners in any decision-making regarding the future of Afghanistan. This includes calling for the Taliban to rescind the mahram policy and uphold women’s freedom of movement and to ensure we can exercise our right to education, work and health. This includes questioning the Taliban directly about the whereabouts of women human rights defenders like Tamana Zaryab Paryani and Parwana Ebrahim Khel when you hear that they have been taken from their homes for protesting against repressive policies, such as the hijab directive.[10] This means not giving up on asking about the disappearance of Alia Azizi.[11] You cannot be silent about them if you claim to support us in this Council.

Humanitarian situation

Mr. President,

We are in the midst of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Since the Taliban’s takeover, hunger and poverty in Afghanistan have skyrocketed.[12] More than half the population, the highest figure ever seen in Afghanistan, needs urgent food assistance at this very moment.[13] Some families have resorted to selling their children for income.[14] Others are marrying off girls as young as nine so that their dowries might pay for food and urgent healthcare.[15] The Taliban’s restrictions on women aid workers’ ability to fully carry out their duties and their systematic dismantling of the country’s systems to prevent and respond to gender-based violence are endangering women’s access to services.[16] Our hospitals lack equipment, medication, including much-needed tests for COVID-19, but also supplies for women’s reproductive health.[17] This threatens to increase the already high maternal mortality rate in the country.[18]

As the humanitarian situation has rapidly deteriorated over the last five months, the people of my country have asked what they have done to deserve this. And no one has any answers for them.

It is the responsibility of the Security Council, the international community and the UN to do everything in your power to urgently provide life-saving assistance at the scale needed to avert further suffering. Aid must reach all Afghans, including women, minorities and other marginalized groups. To ensure this, all humanitarian workers, including women, must be able to carry out their work freely, safely and without fear of reprisal. Further, the international community should continue to ensure that humanitarian assistance goes directly to principled humanitarian organizations and local organizations operating on the ground, and is not routed through the Taliban. Women’s organizations in Afghanistan must be regularly consulted on the design and implementation of humanitarian operations.


Mr. President,

While humanitarian assistance is critical to managing short-term needs, the collapsing banking system and economy must also be addressed.[19] Presently, ordinary Afghans who need to withdraw money must wait for hours before collecting what small amount has been permitted that day.[20] The prices of food staples like wheat, oil, rice and sugar continue to rise.[21] Afghans have lost half a million jobs since August, which disproportionately impacts women.[22] Furthermore, the unprecedented brain drain, prompted by the Taliban’s takeover in August, has left the country without enough qualified people to get the job done.[23]

Even if the banking system restarts and supply chain demands are addressed, women’s engagement in the workforce will be critical to the success of Afghanistan’s economy. Women’s participation in the labor force has steadily increased since 2009.[24] We were taxpayers, breadwinners and innovators — all critical for the country’s economic prosperity. In fact, restricting women’s right to work could cost the Afghan economy up to $1 billion of its GDP.[25] And although the Taliban doesn’t fully support our right to work outside the home, the majority of Afghans do.[26] The Security Council, UN and international community must ensure women’s right to work in Afghanistan, dedicate funds to supporting and monitoring women and girls’ access to education and economic rights, and engage women as partners in developing solutions to the current economic crisis.

Engagement with the Taliban

This brings me to my final, but most important, point. The people of Afghanistan, especially its women, see the dilemma the world currently faces regarding how to engage with the Taliban while addressing the present, urgent needs, as well as the future hopes of all Afghans. Ordinary Afghans must not be punished for a crisis they had no part in creating. But equally, the Taliban cannot use the lives of Afghans to hold the international community to ransom. Therefore, it is in our collective interest to ensure there is a robust international presence through the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) who can be the international community’s eyes and ears on the ground, monitoring and reporting on developments in the country and whether the Taliban are following through on their bilateral and international commitments. This is especially important at a time where civil society, the media and international NGOs are unable to do so.[27] UNAMA should also play a key role in supporting dialogue with the Taliban for the sake of the Afghan people, and ensure broad and inclusive consultations with Afghans from all parts of the country and all walks of life.

At the same time, the international community must not be afraid to use its important leverage over the Taliban. Human rights, women’s rights and accountability must be part of every conversation. In addition, clear conditions must be placed on any economic and political support that is provided to the Taliban to ensure that they address the needs and protect the rights of the population, including its women, girls, minorities and other marginalized groups. You affirmed the importance of upholding all human rights in resolution 2593. Now you must act on it.

Finally, the international community must stop sending all-male delegations to meet with the Taliban.[28] This sends a dangerous signal that you do not value our rights or our views. Sending foreign women is not enough; we must start the process of inclusive governance for and by Afghans. Diverse representation of Afghan women — especially civil society — must be part of all ongoing negotiations with the Taliban.

Mr. President,

I am not the first, nor will I be the last, Afghan woman to address this Council. But this time, I hope members of this esteemed body and the international community more broadly will start to take us seriously.

While we cannot turn back the clock, we can choose to work differently moving forward. Ensuring that Afghan women are meaningfully a part of our country’s future is a critical place to start.

Thank you.


[1] Gul, A. (2021): More Than 300,000 Afghans Flee to Pakistan Since Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan. VOA News, 16 December 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/more-than-300-000-afghans-flee-to-pakistan-since-taliban-takeover-of-afghanistan-/6357777.html.

[2] UN News (2022): Experts decry measures to ‘steadily erase’ Afghan women and girls from public life, 17 January 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/01/1109902.

AFP (2021): Images of women vandalised as Kabul faces up to Taliban rule. The Times of India, 19 August 2021. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/images-of-women-vandalised-as-kabul-faces-up-to-taliban-rule/articleshow/85448121.cms.

Aljazeera (2022): Taliban orders shop owners to remove heads of mannequins. 5 January, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/5/taliban-shop-owners-cut-off-heads-mannequins.

[3] Goldbaum, C. (2021): Taliban Allow Girls to Return to Some High Schools, but With Big Caveats, New York Times, 27 October 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/27/world/asia/afghan-girls-school-taliban.html.

Graham-Harrison, E. (2021): Taliban ban girls from secondary education in Afghanistan, The Guardian, 17 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/17/taliban-ban-girls-from-secondary-education-in-afghanistan.

Bensemra, Z. (2021): Dreams on hold: Afghan girls, women desperate to get back to class, Reuters, 3 November 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/dreams-hold-afghan-girls-women-desperate-get-back-class-2021-11-02/.

[4] Zucchino, D. (2021): Afghan Women Who Once Presided Over Abuse Cases Now Fear for Their Lives, 20 October 2021, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/21/world/asia/afghan-judges-women-taliban.html.

[5] Doucet, L. (2021): Life in Kabul under Taliban: Where is your male escort?, 3 September 2021, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58437713.

[6] Morris, M. and Ruby, R. (2022): Portraits of fear and loss – Taliban rule through the eyes of four women in Afghanistan. The Washington Post, 12 January 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/women-life-taliban-afghanistan/ 

[7] Jung, E. and Maroof, H. (2021): Giving birth under the Taliban. BBC World Service, 20 September 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58585323

Amnesty International (2021): Survivors of Gender-based Violence Abandoned Following Taliban Takeover – New Research, 6 December 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/12/afghanistan-survivors-of-gender-based-violence-abandoned-following-taliban-takeover-new-research/.

Human Rights Watch (2022): Afghanistan: Taliban Deprive Women of Livelihoods, Identity. 18 January 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/18/afghanistan-taliban-deprive-women-livelihoods-identity.   

[8] Pollard, R. and Fickling, D. (2021): Starvation is as much a threat to Afghan women as the Taliban, The Japan Times, 19 September 2021,  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2021/09/19/commentary/world-commentary/starvation-afghan-women/.

Human Rights Watch (2022): Afghanistan: Taliban Deprive Women of Livelihoods, Identity. 18 January 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/18/afghanistan-taliban-deprive-women-livelihoods-identity.  

[9] Taliban Use Harsh Tactics to Crush Afghan Women’s Rights Protest, Human Rights Watch, 18 January 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/18/taliban-use-harsh-tactics-crush-afghan-womens-rights-protest.

Latifi, A.M. (2021): Herat women protest against Taliban over right to work, Aljazeera, 2 September 2021,  https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/2/women-in-herat-protest-outside-governors

Limaye, Y. and ThaparA. (2021): Afghanistan: Women beaten for demanding their rights, BBC News, 8 September 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58491747.

[10] Zucchino, D. and Akbary, Y. (2022): Threatened and Beaten, Afghan Women Defy Taliban with Protests, 24 January 2022, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/24/world/asia/afghan-women-taliban-protests.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ferguson, J. (2022): Afghanistan has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, The New Yorker, 5 January 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/afghanistan-has-become-the-worlds-largest-humanitarian-crisis.

[13] OCHA (2022): Humanitarian Response Plan Afghanistan. Issued January 2022, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/afghanistan-humanitarian-response-plan-2022.pdf

UN News (2021): WFP appeals for greater support for Afghanistan as hunger increases, 1 December 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/12/1106912.

[14] Charles, A. (2021): Hunger crisis forces Afghan parents to sell children for food, World Vision, 22 December 2021, https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/afghan-families.

[15] Coren, A., Yeung, J. and Bina, A.B. (2021): She was sold to a stranger so her family could eat as Afghanistan crumbles, CNN, 1 November 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/01/asia/afghanistan-child-marriage-crisis-taliban-intl-hnk-dst/index.html.

[16] This includes banning them from working all together, limiting the kind of work they do, and requiring a mahram.

Human Rights Watch (2021): Afghanistan: Taliban Blocking Female Aid Workers, 4 November 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/04/afghanistan-taliban-blocking-female-aid-workers.

Loy, I. (2021): For some NGOs, female staff guarantees are a red line for continuing Afghan aid, The New Humanitarian, 17 September 2021, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2021/9/17/Afghanistan-aid-groups-seek-Taliban-guarantees-for-female-humanitarian-staff.

Amnesty International (2021): Afghanistan: Survivors of gender-based violence abandoned following Taliban takeover – new research, 6 December 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/12/afghanistan-survivors-of-gender-based-violence-abandoned-following-taliban-takeover-new-research/.

UN Women (2021): Women’s Rights in Afghanistan – Where are we now?, December 2021, https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2021-12/Gender-alert-Womens-rights-in-Afghanistan-en.pdf, pp. 5-6.

[17] UN News (2021: Afghanistan’s healthcare system on brink of collapse, as hunger hits 95 per cent of families, 22 September 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/09/1100652.

[18] UN News (2021), Lifesaving support for new mothers in crisis-wracked Afghanistan, 16 December 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/12/1108122.

[19] Pandey, A. (2021): Afghan banking system on brink of collapse, UN warns, Deutsche Welle, 22 November 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/afghan-banking-system-on-brink-of-collapse-un-warns/a-59900961.

UN News (2021), Afghanistan economy in ‘freefall’, threatening to take entire population with it, 19 December 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/12/1108372.

[20] Jurist (2021): Afghanistan dispatches: long lines and long waiting hours at the only functioning bank in northern Afghanistan becomes routine for cash-strapped citizens. 30 December 2021, https://www.jurist.org/news/2021/12/afghanistan-dispatches-long-lines-and-long-waiting-hours-at-the-only-functioning-bank-in-northern-afghanistan-becomes-routine-for-cash-strapped-citizens/

New York Times (2022): Let Innocent Afghans Have Their Money. Opinion by the Editorial Board, 14 January 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/14/opinion/afghanistan-bank-money.html; Nikkei Asia (2021): Afghanistan central bank raises limit on bank withdrawals to $400 a week, 3 November 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Afghanistan-turmoil/Afghanistan-central-bank-raises-limit-on-bank-withdrawals-to-400-a-week.

[21] WFP (2022): Afghanistan – Countrywide Weekly Market Price Bulletin, vam food security analysis, issues 86, 4 January 2022, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/WFP-0000135638.pdf.

[22] UN News (2022): Afghanistan: 500,000 jobs lost since Taliban takeover, 19 January 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/01/1110052

Greenfield, C. (2022): Afghan women losing jobs fast as economy shrinks and rights curtailed. Reuters, 20 January 2022,


[23] Peterson, S. (2021): ‘Who will rebuild the country?’ Educated Afghans’ stay-or-go struggle. The Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 2021, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2021/0923/Who-will-rebuild-the-country-Educated-Afghans-stay-or-go-struggle 

[24] Funaiole, M.P. (2021): Women-Owned Businesses in Afghanistan Are in Jeopardy. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 10 September 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/women-owned-businesses-afghanistan-are-jeopardy

[25] Najafizada, E. (2021): A Taliban ban on women in the workforce can cost economy $1bn. Aljazeera, 1 December 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/12/1/talibans-ban-on-women-in-the-workforce-can-cost-economy-1bn; UNDP (2021): Afghanistan – Socio-Economic Outlook 2021-2022, 1 December 2021, https://www.asia-pacific.undp.org/content/rbap/en/home/library/sustainable-development/afghanistan-socio-economic-outlook-2021-2022.html 

[26] Human Rights Watch (2021): Afghanistan: Taliban Blocking Female Aid Workers. 4 November 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/04/afghanistan-taliban-blocking-female-aid-workers; UN News (2021): Afghanistan: Humanitarian crisis threatens basic human rights. 14 December 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/12/1107902 

The Asia Foundation (2019): A survey of the Afghan people – Afghanistan in 2019. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2019_Afghan_Survey_Full-Report.pdf, pp. 28, 222-226.

[27] UN News (2021): Afghanistan: Humanitarian crisis threatens basic human rights, 14 December 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/12/1107902

Moore, D. (2021): Taliban Governance of NGOs – What to Expect and How to Respond, Just Security, 15 October 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/78590/taliban-governance-of-ngos-what-to-expect-and-how-to-respond.

OHCHR (2021): Oral update on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan – Statement by Nada Al-Nashif UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, 14 December 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=27960&LangID=E.

[28] Barr, H. (2021): When Foreign Men Talk to the Taliban About Women’s Rights – It Matters when the UN, Governments, and Aid Agencies Send Only Men to Talk to the Taliban, Human Rights Watch, 18 October 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/18/when-foreign-men-talk-taliban-about-womens-rights. ; Gandhara (2021): ‘Grotesque And Wrong’: Foreign Diplomats Called Out For Meeting Taliban Without Women, 19 November 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/foreign-diplomats-taliban-meetings-no-women/31570045.html.


Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe