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Afghanistan: An ICRC perspective on bringing assistance and protection to women during the Taliban regime

30-09-2002 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 847, by Charlotte Lindsey

Charlotte Lindsey Curtet,
Head, Women and War Project, ICRC, Geneva 

The fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has opened the way for considerable debate on the country’s future, and the part to be played by women in that future is now being widely analysed and discussed. Much has being written about the fate of women under the Taliban. This short article aims to review the activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule, with particular focus on its impact on women to see what lessons could be learned in terms of how to provide the widest and most effective humanitarian assistance despite massive political and logistical constraints. Before continuing, it should be pointed out that prior to Taliban rule the situation of women in Kabul and other large towns (where their access to education and work and their freedom of movement were greater) differed considerably from that of women in rural areas (where the approach towards them was generally more conservative). So when the Taliban took power, their impact varied throughout the country.

The ICRC has a long history of humanitarian work in Afghanistan, where it has been present since 1986, and has seen political and military factions come and go. It was based in Kandahar when the Taliban first came to power there before taking Kabul, and thus already had some experience of working in an area controlled by an authority with extreme views on the role of women. Its “all-victims approach” — i.e. to provide a comprehensive response to the needs of all populations affected by armed conflict or internal disturbances — has been viewed by some outside the ICRC as precluding the targeting of assistance and protection specifically for women in situations such as that which prevailed under the Taliban in Afghanistan. From the ICRC’s point of view, this approach is crucial in enabling it to come to the aid of the most vulnerable, whoever they may be. However, the very notion of vulnerability calls for an understanding of what makes people vulnerable. This can differ according to whether they are male or female, adults or children, and the particular circumstances of the persons concerned, such as detention or displacement. The aforesaid approach should therefore allow the ICRC to better assess and respond to the needs of women, and should not in any way exclude them.

The situation of women in Afghanistan has long been of concern to the ICRC’s Women and War Project and the subject of numerous discussions on what policies and actions would be in the best interests of those whom the ICRC was trying to help. The basic question was how could the ICRC, whose predominantly male staff based in Afghanistan were severely restricted in their access to Afghan women, know just what was in the best interests of women there? The ICRC’s Women and War Project made two visits to Afghanistan to try to assess whether the needs of women were being met through the ICRC’s programmes. In the absence of quality access to female members of the Afghan population, the only way to carry out the assessment was to examine some examples of the ICRC’s work in Afghanistan during the period of Taliban control in Kabul, namely detention-related and medical activities, assistance, protection, restoring family contact, and dissemination.


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