UN envoy's farewell: My heart breaks for Afghan girls, women

ISLAMABAD (AP) - The U.N. representative in Afghanistan lamented in her farewell statement Thursday the harsh edicts that the Taliban have imposed on girls and women since they seized power in the country, denying them the right to education and work and forcing millions to stay at home.

Deborah Lyons, who is leaving her post as the U.N. chief's special representative, said that the Afghanistan today is a very different country from the one she encountered two years ago. Her comments came in a statement that was released to the media; her successor has not yet been named.

"I could not have imagined, when I accepted this job, the Afghanistan that I am now leaving," she said. "My heart breaks in particular for the millions of Afghan girls who are denied their right to education, and the many Afghan women full of talent who are being told to stay at home."

The Taliban overran the Afghan capital of Kabul in mid-August as the United States and NATO were in the final weeks of their withdrawal from the country. Afghanistan's new rulers quickly started enforcing a sharply tougher line, harking back to similar radical measures when the Taliban last ruled the country, from 1996 to 2001.

They issued edicts requiring women to cover their faces except for their eyes in public, including women presenters on TV, and banned girls from attending school past the sixth grade.

At the same time, Afghanistan has seen persistent bombings and other attacks on civilians, often targeting the mainly Shiite Muslim ethnic Hazara minority. Most of the attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State group's affiliate in the country, a bitter rival of the Taliban.

"It is an irony that now that there is space for everyone to help rebuild the country half of the population is confined and prevented from doing so," said Lyons, who was appointed head of U.N. mission to Afghanistan in March 2020.

"It is that much more painful as a woman to leave my Afghan sisters in the condition they are in," she said and added that she is convinced that a "system that excludes women, minorities, and talented people will not endure."

She pledged, however, that the United Nations would not abandon the Afghan people.

Lyons assumed her post as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world. In Afghanistan, she faced the effects of the agreement with the Taliban, signed on Feb. 29, 2020 in Qatar, for U.S. troops to leave the country and for the insurgents to guarantee that Afghan territory would not be used for terrorist attacks against America.

Then came the decision by the Biden administration in April 2021 to withdraw all foreign troops by the end of August that same year, in accordance with the agreement.

Still, the international community remained stunned by the Taliban takeover as the Western-backed government and Afghan forces crumbled. Concerns escalated with the harsh measures imposed by the Taliban as Afghanistan's economy plunged into a downward spiral.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council called on the Taliban to "swiftly reverse" restrictions limiting girls' access to education and women's employment, freedom of movement and "full, equal and meaningful participation in public life."

During the previous Taliban rule in Afghanistan, they subjected women to overwhelming restrictions, banning them from education and participation in public life and requiring them to wear the all-encompassing burqa.