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Sen. Shaheen on Afghan women under Taliban rule: ‘We have known this was coming’

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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen believes that the “gender lens is something that we need to include in all of our foreign policy.” In recent weeks she has used her posts on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, where she is the only woman from either party, to ask about women and girls during hearings about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the confirmation of key diplomatic nominees.

This article was first published by The 19th.

During a hearing last week for President Joe Biden’s nominee for the United Nations Economic and Social Council, for example, Shaheen made it a point to note that part of the role would be overseeing a commission that is “the only global body dedicated to the promotion of women and girls’ empowerment.”

“How do you think efforts to improve women’s empowerment could be bolstered by the work of the commission? Do you see specific changes that you can be engaged in that will help with that?” the New Hampshire Democrat asked Lisa Carty, the nominee.

“It’s an issue that’s very near and dear to my heart, I see multiple opportunities, senator, across the UN system where I could help … advance U.S. goals regarding the well-being of women and girls,” Carty answered.

The 19th spoke to Shaheen ahead of Monday’s International Day of the Girl Child, which the United Nations designated nearly 20 years ago to call worldwide attention to gender-based violence, child marriage and other issues that disproportionately affect girls, along with disparities in access to education and medical care.

It comes this year as reports from Afghanistan indicate that women and girls are disappearing from workplaces and classrooms under Taliban rule. There are no women in the new government. The situation there is “not good,” Shaheen said, but predictable because the Taliban had “already shown their colors” as it relates to women’s rights.

“We have known this was coming since the Trump administration started negotiations with the Taliban, and they refused to have women at the negotiating table,” she said. At the time, she called then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s refusal to commit to the inclusion of Afghan women in the negotiations a “moral and foreign policy failure” for the Trump administration. The devastating consequences she warned about then are playing out today, she told the 19th.

“We actually have a law — the Women, Peace and Security Act — that says, when in conflict areas, that we should have women at the table. And there’s a really good reason for that, not just in Afghanistan, but around the world, because we know when the women are at the table, that those negotiations in conflict are likely to last longer. There’s very good data on this,” she said.

When women participate in negotiations, the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years increases by 20 percent, and the probability that an agreement lasts 15 years increases by 35 percent, according to United Nations data. Shaheen’s 2017 law mandated the creation of a U.S. strategy aimed at increasing women’s participation in peacekeeping negotiations, with reports due to Congress at set intervals.

Shaheen also wrote legislation with the late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona bolstering the Special Interest Visa (SIV) program that is being used to evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S. government during its 20-year military presence there. Over the summer, Biden signed provisions of a Shaheen-led bill into law that increased the number of authorized SIVs ahead of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Late last month, she questioned Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and General Kenneth McKenzie about why Afghans had trouble availing themselves of the program. Austin agreed that the “process is onerous” and said officials are “working to try to find ways, to propose ways to truncate the process.”

Shaheen has already asked for another briefing related to the processing of Afghan SIV applicants. “One of the biggest challenges has been the documents that people need to show to prove they work with our military,” Shaheen said, and “DoD needs to do better.”

Shaheen was critical of the Trump administration’s failure to consider gender in its foreign policy in other ways, including an ambassador-at-large post at the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues that was vacant for much of his presidency. She hopes Biden picks a nominee soon; the White House said one is forthcoming.

The vacancy at the Office of Global Women’s Issues, which has historically been filled by a noncontroversial and unanimous voice vote, is one of many in Biden’s administration related to foreign policy. As of last month, only about a quarter of national security posts had been filled, The New York Times reported, and State Department officials have warned that partisan delays in the Senate over filling posts have “hamstrung” the administration’s diplomacy.

Latanya Mapp-Frett at the Global Fund for Women, an international nonprofit, described dozens of the empty posts as “the worker bees, the people who need to be there so the people who have been appointed can get the work done.” She said “while I can’t grade [the administration] yet — it’s far too soon for that and there are far too many issues — we have been talking to them very specifically about what we’re calling a ‘feminist foreign policy,’” designed to advance global gender equality.

The administration’s foreign policy as it relates to gender will be shaped in large part by a version of President Barack Obama’s Council on Women and Girls that disbanded during the Trump administration. Biden has revived it as the Gender Policy Council, with a more inclusive mandate, and it will release its first-ever gender strategy in the coming days. Co-chair Jennifer Klein said the council aims to integrate gender-related policies throughout the administration’s agencies and advisory bodies, both foreign and domestic. Klein previously worked in the Office of Global Women’s Issues.

Shaheen said for now, when it comes to Afghan women and girls, the best thing U.S. leaders can do is continue to speak out about what is happening on the ground in the country as the Taliban asserts its power. This is what women leaders there asked her to do as the United States withdrew, she said.

“After President Biden announced the withdrawal, I had a meeting on Zoom with a number of Afghan leaders, and I asked them: ‘What they would like us to do?’ Shaheen said. “They said: ‘Continue to speak out.’”

“I think that’s number one on the priority list, that we can all do, is we can continue to speak out about what’s happening there, and to make sure that aid doesn’t go to the Taliban, that it goes through NGOs,” she said.

“I expect unless the international community continues to speak out, it will only get worse,” she added.