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Helen Clark: The world must not turn its back on Afghanistan


Helen Clark was Prime Minister when New Zealand troops were stationed in Afghanistan. She returned to the country as Administrator of the United Nations Development Program and in 2019 for the third time for World Vision. There were promising signs for women and children at the time. But when the Taliban return to power we must ensure evacuation support for vulnerable and exposed people, She writes.

AIf you are wondering what the future holds for women and girls in Afghanistan, you can turn to Margaret Atwoods The story of the maid. This dystopian novel, adapted for television in recent years, has captivated audiences and, disturbingly, is not far removed from the emerging reality in Afghanistan.

Women and girls are deprived of their rights under the rule of the Taliban. A strict dress code is enforced. You may not be able to get any education beyond elementary school. They have little options when faced with physical or sexual violence. In addition, the Taliban and its supporters have a track record of extreme victim referrals in the form of public flogging and stoning.

Thanks to Atwood, and now 24-hour media coverage, we are able to visualize the danger many face in Afghanistan. It is sheer terror that drives people to cling to departing planes only to fall from the sky. Similar to The story of the maid, the only hope for many now is to seek refuge in another country.

Afghanistan could never be successful with only 20 years of international support. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been plagued by violent conflict for decades. It takes time to build peace and better governance and sustain human development. Calling it a day when there is still so much to do has had a house of cards effect.

Helen Clark at an education center for street children in Herat. Photo: Delivered

In no time, the elected government collapsed and thousands of terrorists were released from prison. Many helpers and partners who repair critical infrastructure destroyed by previous conflicts, work with communities to support opportunities for girls and women, and try to keep children and their families alive in the face of impending famine, have had to flee.

This desperate situation is all the more devastating because the tentative progress has been made. When I visited Herat and Badghis provinces in early 2019, what I saw gave me hope. Religious leaders worked to eradicate child marriage. There were start-up initiatives for women. Street children and child laborers were given the opportunity to continue their education.

But the challenges to human development remained great. I visited clinics where children were treated for acute malnutrition. Many of them came from families displaced by conflict, drought, or both. On my trips to food insecure areas for the United Nations, I had never seen children doing so badly. For 41% of children under five in Afghanistan, growth is stunted due to a lack of food. Without the necessary humanitarian access and assistance, that number will surely increase.

The Taliban now have a firm grip on much of Afghanistan. The international community urgently needs to provide evacuation support, not only for non-Afghans in the country, but also for vulnerable Afghan nationals, including members of civil society, activists and human rights defenders, academics, journalists, NGO workers and other politically vulnerable and exposed people. Visas need expedited and resettlement assistance.

There is also an urgent need to examine how, in this complex and violent context, the basic needs of the inevitably retarded, who make up the vast majority of the Afghan population, can be met. The traumatic events of recent weeks have made a population devastated by decades of conflict, insecurity and drought even more vulnerable than before. The overthrow of an elected government by militants who want to turn the clock back decades on human development is a recipe for even greater misery on a grand scale. Can the world watch this happen? Or will it work?

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