Senator Omidvar on Solidarity with Afghan Women

On November 16, 2021, WRMC Member and Canadian Independent Senator Ratna Omidvar delivered opening remarks at the panel discussion “Solidarity with Afghan Women: A Policy Perspective” to discuss the ways Canada can better support Afghan women.

Below is a summary of the Senator’s remarks:

Horror has taken place in Afghanistan since July and continues today. Crimes against humanity have occurred, from the Taliban has rounded up girls over 15 and widows under 45 to name as their brides  to the murder of women’s activists.

The Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of 20 years ago for women and girls. In the past 20 years women and girls have gone to school and universities, become doctors, lawyers, journalists, and played sports such as soccer and volleyball, or become musicians and artists.

There is a moral obligation and imperative to protect the many Afghan women who are being punished for having worked alongside the Canadian Government and Canadian NGOs.

Some have mused that, just as Afghanistan has changed in the past 20 years, so too has the Taliban. There is very little evidence to support that the Taliban has evolved to become a group that will respect human rights or international law. The Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law remains repressive, particularly towards women and girls.

Advertisements on the street depicting the faces of women are spray painted over, education opportunities for women and girls have regressed, and working women have been told by the Taliban to stay at home and the male members of their families would occupy their jobs.

In short, there is well-placed fear for Afghan women and girls. Leaving aside what global powers and international institutions can do, it is necessary to focus on what we as individuals can do. It is necessary to have conversations about how we can help women in Afghanistan, and help women who have fled the Taliban.

The evacuation of women in danger is the first priority. When the government lets us down, we, as ordinary people, must step up. There are Canadian journalists, former members of the Canadian Armed Forces and Canadian NGOs working day and night to get people to safety while the number of women at risk continues to grow.

Further measures must also be taken. For instance, ensuring that the remaining NGOs in Afghanistan can reach women in danger, preferably through female intermediaries. And of course, we must hold our government to account over the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. We must also make sure that women who are in precarious situations such as in Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Qatar, and Albania are supported and can get to Canada if they so wish.

Canada has promised to take 20,000 refugees under a special measure program and a further 20,000 focusing on vulnerable populations. There are concrete lessons from our experience with Syrian refugees that must be applied to the current situation for it to triumph. 

The success of Syrian refugee arrivals to Canada was due to many factors but two were critical. First, there was a hard deadline to bring in 25,000 refugees. Second, Canada provided Syrians outside of Syria with prima facie refugee status without relying on the long and arduous process of UNHCR certification. Instead of focusing on selection and confirmation, the Canadian government focused on health and security. It is a protocol that Canada should follow again.

Of the 3,700 Afghans that fled the Taliban and came to Canada, roughly 50% of them are women and girls, temporarily sheltered in hotels in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. Many of them have worked alongside the Canadian Armed Forces, NGOs and speak English. This social capital will serve them well. But there are other Afghans and members of their families that do not speak English and do not have the social capital to find suitable housing or make connections to feel at home in Canada. 

Amongst these Afghans are female judges, parliamentarians, journalists, lawyers, artists and more who need to be connected to their counterparts in Canada and assisted in finding their connections to help in the resettlement process. This needs to be institutionally facilitated and not just left up to chance.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation along with Lifeline Afghanistan and other organizations can take up this challenge. These are big problems to resolve. There are no easy answers. Yet one answer is that sisterhood with Afghan women and girls can be a powerful tool for joint and collective action.

Image: New Delhi, India-Aug 24 2021: Afghan woman shouting slogans with Hundreds of Afghans at UNHCR to protest against the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and demanding to be given refugee status.

Image credit: PradeepGaurs / Shutterstock.com