Roza Otunbayeva, a former President and Foreign Minister of Kyrgyzstan, serves as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in the country, UNAMA.
She has to live and work in a State whose de facto authorities have practically outlawed women, forbidding them to work, study, and visit public spaces. But the Taliban regularly meet with Ms. Otunbayeva and treat her with respect.
‘A normal working relationship’
“I don’t feel any discrimination. I think we have a normal working relationship,” she told UN News during a recent visit to UN Headquarters in New York, where she briefed the Security Council.
Ms. Otunbayeva is trying to use her authority with the Taliban to persuade them to abandon the policy of infringing on women’s rights.
“I talk to the Taliban ministers all the time, and they are engaged in dialogue. Everyone understands the value of international contacts,” she said.
“They were all mujahideen in the past, they fought. One in three of them were detained in Guantanamo. They have such a biography. And yet, we are working on all fronts. I tell them, listen, women can do anything, they can lead missions, not to mention dozens and hundreds of women ministers in Muslim countries, women presidents.”
So far, it has not been possible to convince the Taliban, but the senior UN official has not lost hope. “It takes patience, patience and patience again,” she said.
Winter is coming
In her briefing to the Security Council at the end of September, the Special Representative said the international community should not turn its back on Afghanistan despite all that is happening there. “The country has just a whole bunch of problems,” she told UN News.
Arguably, one of the most pressing issues is the lack of food necessary to survive the upcoming winter season. Winters in Afghanistan are very severe, and the people are destitute, poor and hungry, and many are sick. Because there was war in the country for 40 years, every family suffered losses.
Millions suffering drug addiction
According to Ms. Otunbayeva, of the approximately 40 million people in Afghanistan, between five and eight million suffer from drug addiction, one million of whom are women and children.
“Many women become addicted to drugs by doing carpet weaving. This is a very monotonous and tedious job, and in order not to fall asleep, in order to continue working, many resort to drugs,” she explained.
Men also use opium as a stimulant “so that the body can withstand a long working day. And that’s how they gradually get addicted,” she added.
“Another problem is the lack of medicines, which is why Afghans very often resort to traditional medicine, which is again opium. It’s used for pain, for anything.”
Funding shortfalls, donor reluctance
Ms. Otunbayeva regularly visits clinics where malnourished children are treated, homemade prostheses are constructed for amputees, and drug-addicted Afghans are trying to get clean. “There is intractable poverty all around,” she said. “And there is not enough money for adequate assistance.”
The lack of funding, according to the Special Representative, is the result of the actions of the current government, which is trying to completely erase Afghan women.
“Fifty norms and decrees have been adopted that prohibit girls from studying after the sixth grade, forbid them to study at universities. Women are not allowed to go to the park, to gyms, to baths.
Women I met told me that when there is no hot water at home, they cannot take their children to the bathhouse – this is also now prohibited,” she said. “It is because of this attitude towards women that donors – mainly Western countries – refuse to provide assistance.”
At the same time, the UN representative added, the Taliban want the international community to recognize them and lift sanctions.
Lessons from the past
“The international community has already had experience after the Taliban first came to power, when the country was left to the discretion of the Taliban and it became a hotbed of terrorism,” she recalled. “And then the 9/11 attacks [September 11, 2001] took place.
“The international community has learned a lesson from those events. Today, of course, we continue to engage in dialogue. We represent the international community, and they, for their part, put forward their grievances.
“But in the end, we need to find a common platform so that the country can develop in a normal way. This means, first of all, that women should be allowed to come out of hiding.”
Always on guard
Ms. Otunbayeva also provided a glimpse into the lives of UN staff in Afghanistan, who live in a guarded compound on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul.
“There is still a threat of terrorist attacks,” she said. Last year, both the Russian embassy and a hotel mainly used by Chinese nationals were blown up, while the Pakistani ambassador was almost killed.
“Da’esh militants may be behind this, who are trying to prove that the Taliban are not capable of governing the country. So, we’re all very careful; we can’t relax for a minute.”
However, there is no entertainment, she revealed.
“Do you know that the Taliban have banned music? There are no concerts, nothing. None of us can just go out to the store on our own, for example. There is no music, there is no alcohol, so our life is harsh,” she said, smiling.