Countess of Wessex tells UN event ‘life has regressed’ for women in Afghanistan

Sophie called on the international community to support women peacebuilders and activists who have stood up to the Taliban to demand their rights.

15 March 2022

The Countess of Wessex has said women in Afghanistan have become “virtual prisoners in their own homes” as she addressed a United Nations event aimed at upholding women’s rights in the country.

Sophie told the conference in New York that “life has regressed” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control in August.

She said that while the world’s attention has turned to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “the crisis in Afghanistan has not gone away and the effects are worsening daily”.

Sophie said: “The Taliban would have us believe that they are allowing citizens to go about their normal activities.

“We know that this is not true.

“So while we welcome their announcement that they have committed to reopening schools to girls this month, and the return of some women to university, what we know is that the rights of women and girls have worsened.”

The country is facing a humanitarian and economic crisis and food shortages, she said.

“It is so hard to imagine how much has changed for so many in so little time – where once there was hope, with women playing a central role in society, there is now hunger, destitution and violence”.

The countess also said she recently met an Afghan translator living in the UK, who told her he fears for the women in his family back home.

She said: “Most of them dare not even go out of their houses at all, terrified of being taken, abused, or worse.

“He is frightened for so many women and girls, who have now become virtual prisoners in their own homes”.

The Taliban’s claims of upholding women’s rights according to their interpretation of Islam and pressure from the international community have afforded some freedoms compared with the first time they ruled Afghanistan until 2001.

The Countess of Wessex, pictured during a visit to RAF Wittering, Peterborough, in 2021, is a long-time advocate for women’s rights (David Rose/Daily Telegraph/PA)

But women have faced restrictions since the Taliban’s return to power, with a crackdown on protesters and the detention of activists and journalists.

Sophie urged the international community to “support the brave women peacebuilders and activists, and all those who have stood up to the Taliban to demand their rights, while risking their lives in doing so”.

The Upholding Women’s Rights in Afghanistan event, hosted by the Group of Friends of Women in Afghanistan, UN Women and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, convened experts to discuss how to achieve this.

Sophie’s speech at the event was part of a four-day trip to New York, where she is carrying out a number of official royal duties.

The 57-year-old is a long-time advocate for women and girls, and publicly committed herself to supporting the UK’s work helping victims of rape, sexual violence and exploitation in war in 2019.

She has also worked to promote women through the Women’s Network Forum, which she founded in 2014 to boost gender balance and equality in the workplace.

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