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The Return of the Taliban: What Now for the Women of Afghanistan?

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The American experiment in Afghanistan failed, but why should women and girls pay the price?

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The Return of the Taliban: What Now for the Women of Afghanistan?
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There have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions – particularly from liberals – about the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those who oppose US military intervention in foreign lands say the withdrawal couldn’t have come sooner – that invading Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington was a mistake and staying on in (“occupying”) the country was an even bigger mistake. They argue that US military intervention in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia and other places has been disastrous, and that these interventions reek of imperialism.

Well and good. But everyone who has something to say about the poorly planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the Taliban and President Joe Biden, has failed to answer these questions: What would the women of Afghanistan have wanted? Why were they not consulted before the US president made the unilateral decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan? And what gives Biden and the all-male Pashtun-dominated Taliban leadership the right to make decisions on women’s behalf?

I was in Kabul in 2002, some three months after the US invaded the country and ousted the Taliban from the capital city. I spoke with many women there who told me that they were relieved that the Taliban had left because life under the misogynistic movement had become unbearable for women and girls. Girls were not allowed to have an education so girls’ schools had to be run secretly from homes. The Taliban were known for barbaric public executions and for flogging women who did not wear burqas or who were accused of adultery. Theirs was an austere, cruel rule where people were not even allowed to sing, dance, play music or watch movies.

Twenty years of war, beginning with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent US-backed insurgency of the Mujahideen (mujahidun in Arabic—“those engaged in jihad”) in the 1980s (which later transformed into the Taliban movement), not to mention the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks, had left Kabul’s physical infrastructure in ruins. Entire neighbourhoods had been reduced to rubble and no one quite remembered any more whose army had destroyed which building. The only buildings still left standing were the mosques and the Soviet-built apartment blocks housing civil servants. In 2002, Kabul Municipality had estimated that almost 40 per cent of the houses in the city had been destroyed in the previous fifteen years. Solid waste disposal barely met minimum standards, and running water and electricity were luxuries in most homes.

After the Taliban fled the capital and went underground, an estimated 3 million girls went back to school. At that time, the average Afghan child could expect only about 4 years of schooling. By 2019, this figure had risen to 10 years. Today, more than 13 per cent of adult women in Afghanistan have a secondary school education or higher. Women’s participation in the political sphere also increased dramatically; in 2019, nearly a third (27.2 per cent) of parliamentary seats were held by women.

No wonder women around the world were shocked and dismayed to see how easily Afghan women and girls were sacrificed and abandoned by the world’s leading powers. “My heart breaks for the women of Afghanistan. The world has failed them. History will write this,” tweeted the Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad on 13 August 2021.

As Taliban fighters were gaining control of the capital Kabul on Sunday, 15 August 2021, an unnamed woman living in the city wrote the following in the Guardian:

As a woman, I feel I am the victim of this political war that men started. I felt like I can no longer laugh out loud, I can no longer listen to my favourite songs, I can no longer meet my friends in our favourite café, I can no longer wear my favourite yellow dress or pink lipstick. And I can no longer go to my job or finish the university degree that I worked for years to achieve.

There have been reports of Taliban fighters abducting and marrying young girls, and ordering women not to report to work. Afghan female journalists fear for their lives; many have gone into hiding. The sale of burqas has apparently skyrocketed.

The argument that women in other countries also suffer at the hands of men, and experience gender-based violence does not fly with many Afghan women who have been fighting for the rights of women for the last two decades. For one, there is no law in any country in the world, as far as I know, that denies women an education or bans them from working outside the home. Women in these countries may not yet be truly free, but at least they can rely on the law to protect them. All the gains Afghan women have made over the last two decades will now be lost. I do not for one second believe that the rebranded Taliban emerging in Afghanistan have become feminists overnight, despite their pro-women rhetoric at press conferences. Mahbouba Seraj, an Afghan women’s rights leader, told TRT World that what is happening in Afghanistan is “going to put the country two hundred years back.” “I am going to say to the whole world—shame on you!” she stated.

A series of failures 

That is not the first time the US has abandoned Afghanistan. After Russian forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the US pulled out as well, leaving the Mujahideen, which it had been funding, to its own devices. Yet, in 1979, when Russian forces entered Afghanistan, the US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had described the Mujahideen as “soldiers of God”, and told them, “Your cause is right and God is on your side.” The Mujahideen transformed into the Taliban, and imposed its severe rule on Afghans during the latter part of the 1990s.  It also became a den for terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda.  The US essentially created a monster that launched the 9/11 attacks 22 years later.

Afghanistan has had a long and turbulent history of conquests by foreign rulers, and has often been described as the “graveyard of empires”. But it has not always been anti-women. In 1919, King Amanullah Khan introduced a new constitution and pro-women reforms. The last monarch, Zahir Shah (1933-1973), also ensured that women’s rights were respected through various laws. But when Shah was overthrown in 1978, the Soviet Union installed a puppet leader. This gave rise to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, who gained control of the country in the 1990s and eroded many of the rights women had been granted.

There have been reports of Taliban fighters abducting and marrying young girls, and ordering women not to report to work.

There are many parallels with Somalia, which also enjoyed Russian support under President Siad Barre. When the Soviets switched sides and began supporting Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, the US gained more influence, but it could not install democracy in a country that had descended into warlordism after Barre was ousted in 1991. After American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu during the country’s civil war in 1993, the US withdrew from Somalia completely. Conservative forces supported by some Arab countries filled the void. When a coalition of Islamic groups took over the capital in 2006, they were quickly ousted by US-backed Ethiopian forces. Al Shabaab was born. As in Afghanistan, the US had a hand in creating a murderous group that had little respect for women.

After the US invasion in 2001, instead of focusing on stabilising and rebuilding Afghanistan, President George Bush set his eyes on invading Iraq on the false pretext that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda and was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. That war in 2003 cost the US government its reputation in many parts of the Muslim world, and turned the world’s attention away from Afghanistan. Bush will also be remembered for illegally renditioning and detaining Afghans and other nationals suspected of being terrorists at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay.  This ill-advised move, which will forever remain a blot on his legacy, has been used as a radicalisation propaganda tool by groups such as the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS).

The international community is now sitting back and doing nothing, even as it is becoming increasingly evident that the world is witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe that will have severe political repercussions within the region and globally. The international community of nations, including the UN Security Council, cannot do anything except plead with the Taliban to not discontinue essential services, which is a tall order given that three-quarters of Afghanistan’s budget was funded by foreign (mostly Western) aid. The Taliban was allowed to take over the country without a fight. And all the UN Secretary-General could do was issue statements urging neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to the thousands of Afghans fleeing the country.

The mass exodus of Afghans, as witnessed at Kabul’s international airport, is a public relations disaster for the Taliban. It shows that not all Afghans welcome the Taliban’s return. As the poet Warsan Shire wrote about her homeland Somalia, “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”. Afghanistan has once again become a failed state.

The longest war 

The impact of the Taliban’s capture of the country is already being felt.  The exodus of Afghans is creating a refugee crisis like the one witnessed in 2015 during the civil war in Syria. The US and its NATO allies have essentially created a refugee crisis of their own making. This will likely generate anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments in the US and Europe, and embolden racist right-wing groups. It is also possible that Afghanistan will become the site of a new type of Cold War, with Russia and China forming cynical alliances with the Taliban in order to destabilise the West and to exploit Afghanistan’s vast natural resources, which remain largely untapped. Girls’ education will be curtailed. No amount of reminding the Taliban that Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadija was a successful businesswoman, and that his third wife Aisha played a major role in the Prophet’s political life will change their minds about women. Women and girls are looking at a bleak future as the Taliban impose punitive restrictions on them that even the expansionist Muslim Ottoman Empire did not dare enforce in its heyday. Afghanistan will become a medieval society where women remain voiceless and invisible.

The worst-case scenario – one that is just too horrific to contemplate – is that terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda will find a foothold in Afghanistan, and unleash a global terror campaign from there, as did Osama bin Laden more than two decades ago.

As in Afghanistan, the US had a hand in creating a murderous group that had little respect for women.

The irony the US having invaded the country two decades before, ostensibly to get rid of Islamic terrorists, Biden has essentially handed over the country to the very group that had harboured terrorists like Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. “President Joe Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan,” wrote David E. Sanger in the New York Times. (To be fair, it was not Biden who first opened the doors to the Taliban; President Donald Trump invited the Taliban to negotiations in Doha in 2018, which lent some legitimacy to a group that had previously been labelled as a terrorist organisation.)

Dubbed “America’s longest war”, the US military mission in Afghanistan has cost US taxpayers about US$2 trillion, one quarter of which has gone towards reconstruction and development, though critics have pointed out that the bulk of this money was used to train the Afghan military and police, and was not used for development projects. The military mission in Afghanistan has also come at a huge human cost; 3,500 soldiers and other personnel from 31 NATO troop-producing countries and 4,400 international contractors, humanitarian workers and journalists were killed in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2020.  Thousands of Afghan lives have also been lost. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan estimates that at least 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded since 2009.

Was the US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan worth it?  Should the US and NATO have stayed a bit longer until the country had well-functioning and well-resourced institutions and until they were sure that the Taliban had been completely routed out? I think so, because I believe that ousting the Taliban was as ethically correct as eliminating ISIS and defeating the German Nazis. The problem in Afghanistan is that the Taliban were never defeated; they simply went underground.

Women and girls are looking at a bleak future as the Taliban impose punitive restrictions on them that even the expansionist Muslim Ottoman Empire did not dare enforce in its heyday.

There is no doubt that the “liberation” or “occupation” of Afghanistan by the US-dominated NATO mission in Afghanistan brought about some tangible benefits, including rebuilt and new infrastructure,  the growth of a vibrant civil society and more opportunities for women. But the US’s support of Western-backed Afghan governments that are generally viewed as corrupt by the majority of Afghans may have handed the Taliban the legitimacy and support they seem to be enjoying among the country’s largely poor rural population, just as installing highly corrupt Western-backed governments in Somalia in the last fifteen years gave Al Shabaab more ammunition to carry out its violent campaign. The Taliban is also recognised by some neighbouring countries, notably Pakistan, which is believed to be one of its funders, and which receives considerable military and other support from the US. This raises questions about why the US is aiding a country that is working against its interests in another. This Taliban-Pakistan alliance will no doubt be watched closely by Pakistan’s rival India.

Afghanistan, unfortunately, is a sad reminder of why no amount of investment in infrastructure and other “development” projects can fix something that has been fundamentally broken in a country. Like Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, it may fragment along tribal or sectarian lines and revert to a civil war situation. Under the Taliban “government”, Afghanistan may become a joyless place where people are not allowed to listen to music, dance or watch movies – where enforcement of a distorted interpretation of Islam casts a dark shadow on the rest of the Muslim world. And Afghan women and girls will once again pay the heaviest price.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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We Are So Much Better Than the Elites Make Us Out to Be

To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues.

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Theatre scholar Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ writes that in 1991, at the height of the clamour for multi-partyism, the government denied a license for the staging of Drumbeats of Kirinyaga, a play by Oby Obyerodhiambo.

The reason given was that the play portrayed an ethnically diverse and politically cohesive Kenya, which contradicted the president’s argument at the time that Kenya was too ethnically divided for multi-partyism.

While President Moi was claiming to care for Kenyans who are too tribal, his government was ironically also suppressing any public display of Kenyans transcending their tribal identities. The government needed to encourage tribalism among Kenyans in order to give itself something to cure.

​We were shocked by the confirmation by a young man, Christopher Wylie, that Cambridge Analytica played a major role in polarizing Kenyans during the 2017 elections. Some were insulted that foreigners would deliberately diffuse messages that would polarize us ethnically. Others, however, argued that Kenyans are tribalist, with or without Cambridge Analytica. I think the reality is more complicated than that.

Cambridge Analytica’s role in polarising Kenyans is part of the larger efforts of global and local elites to keep convincing Kenyans that we vote on nothing else but tribe. The elites manipulate culture in order to coerce us to believe that tribalism comes naturally to us Africans. And yet, the reality is something closer to what the government censor did in 1991.

The role of politicians in keeping ethnic temperatures high has been repeatedly stated. But there are two other pillars that keep Kenyans convinced that they are naturally and inevitably tribalist: the use of culture and research by envoys, journalists, researchers, and now, by Cambridge Analytica.

For instance, while Kenyans called for electoral justice, the US ambassador kept framing Kenya’s problem as “long-standing issues” that should be addressed through reconciliation between NASA and Jubilee. The ambassador was savvy enough to know that using the word “tribal” would evoke memories of colonial anthropology. But even “long-standing” is just as insidious, because it appeals to the colonial narrative of Africans as stuck in the past.

Similarly, articles in the local and international media often used tribal data to predict a Jubilee win. The research they quoted almost always used tribe as the major factor in elections, yet there are other factors that influence the way Kenyans vote, such as income, gender, urban migration, economic inequality or voter frustration with politicians.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research. Yet the variables exist. For instance, our media rarely mention economic inequality as a factor influencing election outcomes, and yet one article in Jacobin found a strong correlation between economic inequality and votes for Raila Odinga.

In the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein queried the sampling methods of predictions of election results, pointing out that some researchers worked backwards from a known result to a sample, rather than the other way round. Some researchers went to Luo regions and predictably projected a high Raila vote, and to Kikuyu populations and predicted a high Uhuru vote, but did not go, for example, to Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia, Kisii Nyanza, Garissa and other regions where Jubilee claimed to have won a majority.

Other times, electoral predictions remain unquestioned because claims are made from people with perceived academic clout. For instance, Mutahi Ngunyi gave prestige to the concept of “tyranny of numbers”. Most media did not question the validity of his concept, even when a poorly circulated video done by AfriCOG showed that the premises of Ngunyi’s argument were rather weak.

If Kenyans were naturally tribalistic, the politicians, intellectuals and envoys would not need to keep reminding us of it. And there is a political interest in insisting on our tribalism: it prevents us from asking questions about social justice or worse, from organizing ourselves along other lines such us age, profession, economic status and gender.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research.

The nightmare of the foreign and local elite is of Kenyans organizing as the poor, youth, women or workers, because then, the numbers would surely have an impact. And politicians would not get automatic godfather status like they do as tribes. They would have to pass through institutions like associations and unions, where success is not guaranteed. For instance, politicians’ efforts to divide the doctors along tribal lines backfired and instead produced a hash tag #IAmaTribelessDoctor.

It does not matter how many Kenyans Cambridge Analytica influenced. Even one Kenyan is one Kenyan too many. What matters is that it appealed to Kenyans’ worst fears, essentially hoping to whip up hysteria, just so that the president could win the vote. Our dignity was cheaper than Muigai’s desire to win. Six million dollars cheaper.

But the worst part of the tribal propaganda is that it is based on convincing Kenyans to believe so little of themselves. To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues. For as Daisy Amdany put it, “We are so much better than what the elites make us out to be.  It’s time to believe it, receive it, be it and live it!”

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9/11 and the United States-Kenya Relationship

Would US-Kenya relations be significantly different today had the al-Qaeda attacks not taken place?

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Looking at the sweep of twenty years, a generation, how have the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda airplane crash attacks on New York and Washington impacted the relationship between the United States and Kenya?

To start to answer that question, we might create a counterfactual and imagine how things might have proceeded without the shock and horror of the (partial) success of al-Qaeda’s terror attacks that day, especially the falling bodies and fiery collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I think the basics of the relationship would likely have been quite similar.

Osama bin Laden’s declared al-Qaeda war against the United States and its allies, including Kenya, was well along by 9-11 but it had not captured a lot of attention from the public in the United States and had little impact on American daily life and politics. For me, working in the defence industry as an attorney for a large aerospace company at their shipbuilding operation in Mississippi, terrorism had been brought home a year earlier when the damaged hull of the USS Cole, which had been bombed by al-Qaeda off Yemen, was brought to us for repair on the Gulf of Mexico on a giant heavy-lift ship. By coincidence, I was in Northern Virginia, at a seminar not far from the Pentagon on the infamous day of 9-11 itself.  We were not so “on-line” in those days, and it was not until a break that we saw on a television set pulled into the hotel lobby that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon and gradually became aware of what was happening.

It was only then that most Americans really got a sense of what Kenyans and Tanzanians had seen and felt during the 1998 embassy bombings.

To understand what did and did not change in the American-Kenyan relationship, we probably need to go back further to Jomo Kenyatta seeking American military assistance from the Ford Administration in the 1970s, through Minister Mwai Kibaki and others, when Kenya faced threats from Uganda’s Idi Amin, and potential hostilities from Somalia’s Siad Barre in the context of a possible disruption of Kenya’s security relationship with Ethiopia following the overthrow of Haile Selassie by the Derg and Britain’s unwillingness to show support.

By 1977, during the Jimmy Carter administration, the US had started provided police training in Kenya. The Norfolk Hotel was bombed by Palestinian terrorists in 1980, in apparent retaliation for Kenya’s cooperation with the Israeli rescue operation at Entebbe in Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1976.

Therefore, Kenya’s recognition of its insecurity in a “rough neighbourhood”, the related exposure to terrorists, and the desire to rely partly on and cooperate with the United States on security matters, was a component of the relationship for years before al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden moved from Afghanistan to Sudan in early 1991, from where he was reportedly funding jihadist militants and insurgents in many countries. America’s Operation Hope which was providing famine relief in Somalia under President George H.W. Bush in December 1992, ended up with the US embroiled in clan warfare the following year as part of a UN peacekeeping mission, with al-Qaeda alleged to have contributed to the “Battle of Mogadishu” fiasco that influenced America’s decision to withdraw in early 1994.  In the meantime, the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center had failed in 1993.

It was only then that most Americans really got a sense of what Kenyans and Tanzanians had seen and felt during the 1998 embassy bombings.

Although Sudan evicted Osama bin Laden who established himself in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1996, al-Qaeda continued to operate in East Africa and a few months after bin Laden’s February 1998 fatwa against Americans and their allies—presumably including Kenyans—came the embassy bombings in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam.

Sceptical about American “nation building”, George W. Bush took office in January 2001 on a platform of “compassionate conservatism” that was perhaps most positively expressed in expansive new aid programmes that shaped the US-Kenyan relationship. Of particular note is PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief, enacted in 2003, and the President’s Malaria Initiative that began in 2005, together with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The US became extensively involved in Southern Sudan, with diplomatic and assistance efforts “back-officed” out of Nairobi.

While the 9/11 attacks led immediately to the invasion of Afghanistan and created the climate in which the long-simmering confrontation with Saddam Hussein became a “regime change” invasion in March 2003 two months before the passage of PEPFAR, the basics of the US-Kenya relationship of health and humanitarian assistance and security cooperation might not have been that much different had the attacks on the US not succeeded.

According to Congressional Research Service reports, Kenya has over the years typically received security assistance of some US$40 million dollars annually as compared to about US$800 million in health, humanitarian, and economic assistance.  Reporting has identified cooperation between Kenyan and US intelligence and paramilitary units in hunting terrorism suspects within Kenya itself but Kenya is not known to have participated in US efforts outside its borders.

A major instance of cooperation that might be imagined to have played out differently could be the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in late 2006 to displace the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and restore the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.  While US officials have stated they did not encourage this decision, we did ultimately provide air support and cooperated with Kenya to “seal the border” to fleeing terror suspects. Controversy arose about “renditions”.  It might be that in the absence of the 9-11 attacks and the long and expansive “war footing” that followed, the US would have dissuaded the Ethiopian operation or followed a different policy to address al-Qaeda elements in Somalia with the rise of the UIC.

The basics of the US-Kenya relationship of health and humanitarian assistance and security cooperation might not have been that much different had the attacks on the US not succeeded.

As it is, the AMISOM force under the African Union was formed in early 2007 and radical elements from the UIC coalesced as al-Shaabab and announced an affiliation with al-Qaeda, eventually provoking the incursion by Kenya in the fall of 2011 following kidnappings in the Lamu area. Although the US is said to have explicitly discouraged this action by the Kenya Defence Forces, within several months Kenyan forces were allowed to join AMISOM and thus begin receiving Western-funded reimbursements.

Since 2011, Somalia has made significant gains in many respects but a shifting stalemate of sorts exists where al-Shabaab controls much territory outside major towns and sustains financing, while federal governance and security remain a work-in-progress.

Meanwhile, al-Shabaab elements continue to recruit and carry out insurgency and terror attacks in Kenya. The attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall that was splashed across Western media, the Mpeketoni attack, the horrific slaughter targeting Christian students at Garissa University, bus attacks and small bombings and the DusitD2 attack in Westlands, show a very wide range of actors, methods, and targets.

How much of this would really be different if al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been thwarted by intelligence beforehand, or by some other intervention, such as by the passengers of Flight 93 which was brought down in Pennsylvania before it could reach its intended target in Washington? The United States might well be different, and much that has happened in the world might be different. But, leaving aside the necessary impact of the ensuing Iraq war on the election of Barack Obama, and then Trump, the relationship between Kenya and the United States might well be much the same today.

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Every Worker Is Essential and Must Be Guaranteed Social Protection, No Matter What

The International Domestic Workers Federation and UNI Global Union demand that all workers of the formal and informal economy are guaranteed social protection.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to the global economy and a massive increase in unemployment — exacerbating the ongoing crises of inequality. Despite massive public investment in mostly wealthy countries, worldwide, too many workers are living in extremely fragile conditions and directly feeling the effects of decades of austerity programs aimed at cutting social protections to the bone — and limiting workers rights.

Right now we are at the crossroads. As the world begins spending trillions to lift us out of economic crisis, unions and organizations representing workers in both the formal and informal economy sectors are forming new alliances to ensure the legacy of the pandemic is one of improved working conditions throughout the world.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider caregivers. Caregiving is one of the most common and rapidly growing professions. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us repeatedly just how essential caregivers are. Caregiving might also be one of the most diverse yet in demand roles in the entire world. While nurses operate for the most part in the formal economy, often in a hospital or institution, care providers in a domestic setting may actually live with their employers and can be called upon 24 hours a day with few avenues for recourse.

For us, as long-time advocates of workers in the formal and informal economies, the time has come to work together to demand universal social protections like a living minimum wage for all and access to healthcare and paid sick leave. We must fight to change the global rules through mandatory human rights due diligence laws and other steps to enable workers to exercise their rights to bargain collectively.

The recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) only underscores the urgency. The ILO found that over half of the global population lacks any form of social protection. This is the case even after the unprecedented expansion of social protections that took place following the global outbreak of COVID-19.

In 2020, just 47% of the world population had effective access to at least one social protection benefit, the ILO found. The remaining 53% — up to 4.1 billion people — had no protection at all.

Take this in contrast with a global study from earlier this year from the ITUC and UNI Global Union that found 98% of the world’s workers are not getting the sick pay, wage replacement and social benefits they need to address the challenges of COVID-19.

Active government policies will make the difference. We cannot fully recover or rebuild a better world if we don’t urgently and effectively protect all people, including the 61% of the global workforce who labor in the informal economy. When these workers aren’t recognized for the work that they do, not only are their basic rights breached, but their access to collective bargaining mechanisms and unionising is withheld.

In South Africa, this year, domestic workers achieved an historic victory that deserves examination. Since 2000, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union has been campaigning for a suite of laws that would extend protections to domestic workers. Eventually, after many years of campaigning, the laws passed, but one of them, which would provide compensation for work-related injury or illness known as COIDA, still excluded domestic workers. After the tragic death of a domestic worker in the employer’s swimming pool, organizers in Pretoria lodged a complaint. It took five years, but the high court declared the exclusion of domestic workers unconstitutional in 2020.

Domestic workers are now covered under South Africa’s COIDA because domestic workers organized and demanded change against all odds. We raise this example because active government policies are critical to protecting workers and raising standards. There are too many attempts at excluding entire groups of workers and while they are usually unconstitutional, it takes years for workers to win.

A strong recovery for domestic workers, street vendors, agricultural workers, and other informal economy workers will be the linchpin for a strong global economic recovery. At the Essential for Recovery Summit, we’ll join workers from around the world to make an urgent call to national governments and international organizations to address our demands for better income and social protections so we can weather this crisis and also build a better future for ourselves.

To allow the sector to expand without formalizing protections, and union representation, threatens to make harsh and often grim working conditions worse. For Myrtle who found her voice organizing during apartheid in South Africa, the goals have always been clear: essential protections for caregivers, the majority of whom are women and often immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities. And as Christy has said: “To put health and safety first — and put the virus to rest — we will need more collective bargaining and unions in the care sector.”

Caregivers and their communities have been particularly impacted, both economically and health-wise by the virus, making the need to uplift their working conditions and wages even more urgent. If we do not address these fundamental inequities, the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be a system worse than what we started with, which already was not supporting and protecting workers. Our key global demand is for all workers of the formal and informal economy to be guaranteed social protection.

This article was first published by Progressive international.

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