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21ST ANNUAL NELSON MANDELA LECTURE

We must be champions of the millions of girls in Afghanistan — Malala Yousafzai

We must be champions of the millions of girls in Afghanistan — Malala Yousafzai
Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai at the 21st Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Joburg Theatre on 5 December, 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The lecture reflected on lessons from South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle and Nelson Mandela's legacy within it and highlight calls to action from Afghan women and girls for a more robust global response. (Photo: Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius)

In Afghanistan, a system of ‘gender apartheid’ presided over by the Taliban is preventing girls from going to school, keeps women from participating in most facets of public life, and is threatening their well-being.

Tuesday 5 December marked 10 years since the death of former president Nelson Mandela, it was also the day on which the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) held its annual lecture, headlined by education activist and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. 

Yousafzai made international headlines in 2012 at the age of 15 when she was shot while protesting against the Taliban’s restrictions on the right to education for women and girls in Pakistan

“I will always be a student first. It is as students that we first open our eyes to injustice. It is as students that we first ask difficult questions about the world. It is as students that we first find friends who embolden us to speak out,” Yousafzai told the audience.

Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafza

Nelson Mandela served as an inspiration to Malala Yousafza. (Photo: Greg Bartley / Scanpix. Lyd: Nelson Mandela 1964, National Archives of South Africa)

She said that in preparation for the lecture, it was with Mandela’s legacy in mind that she asked herself what injustice the world was overlooking and where inhumanity was being allowed to entrench itself:

“The answer for me was very clear and very personal; the oppression of girls and women in Afghanistan.”

Yousafzai said she knew this struggle well because she too had been banned from school at the age of 11 years old and then was subsequently shot in the head and nearly killed at the age of 15 for protesting against the injustice. 

She explained that up until two years ago women and girls enjoyed their freedom to do and be anything they wanted in Afghanistan until the Taliban ceased power and began the systematic oppression of girls and women. This, Yousafzai said, was an event that held the world’s attention for a while but had since seemingly slipped off the radar.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Taliban mark two years since return to power in Afghanistan

“Maybe this reflects the sheer number of crises the world is facing; violence and displacement in Sudan, famine in Yemen, the climate crisis being debated right now at Cop28, war in Ukraine and of course the unjust bombardment of Gaza where a child is killed every 10 minutes. So much of humanity is wounded but we cannot allow ourselves the notion that we can only about one crisis at a time”

Gender apartheid governance

Yousafzai said attention had to be brought back to what the Taliban regime was doing to girls and women in Afghanistan. 

“Our first imperative is to call what it what it really is: it is a gender apartheid,” said Yousafzai. 

While she acknowledged that gender-based discrimination and persecution existed in many countries she pointed out that gender-based apartheid was different, explaining that apartheid was a system imposed and enforced by those in power. She said the Taliban felt justified in doing this by arguing it was a religious imperative. 

Refuting this, Yousafzai emphasised that “Many Muslim scholars including from Afghanistan have made clear that Islam does not condone denying girls and women their right to education and work.”

Afghan women begs for alms

An Afghan women begs for alms on a roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan on 27 July 2022. According to a report by non-governmental organisation Amnesty International, the Taliban have violated women’s and girls’ rights to education, work and free movement since they took control of the government. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stringer)

She told of how girls and women in Afghanistan could not attend school or university, were not allowed to go to libraries, could not leave the house alone to go to a park or doctor for fear of being punished by beatings, indefinite detention, forced marriage or death. She said that this effectively made girlhood illegal and, as a result, cases of depression and anxiety were on the rise with some attempting suicide.

“No girl anywhere in the word should have to suffer this way. If we as a global community accept the Taliban’s edicts, we are sending a devastating message to girls everywhere that they are less human, that your rights are up for debate, that we are willing to look away. There is another reason to call this gender apartheid…apartheid is a legal concept,” she said.

Yousafzai reminded the audience that South Africans fought to criminalise apartheid at an international level and drew the world’s attention to its injustice and successfully rallied international allyship to its demise. She said the same needed to be done for what was happening in Afghanistan and called on global powers to have apartheid declared a crime against humanity.

Afghanistan women activists and journalists attend a press conference on the ending of the 16 days of Activism against Gender-based Violence which started on 25 November and ended on 10 December, in Kabul, Afghanistan, 13 December 2021. The activists demanded the perpetrators of violence against women be identified and prosecuted in accordance with the principles of Islamic and Afghanistan’s law. They called on the Islamic Emirate to open the schools and universities to Afghan girls. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maxim Shipenkov)

“There is more we can do… first international actors must resist normalising relations with the Taliban, prioritising profits over human rights means condoning gender apartheid. Despite appearances, the Taliban is not immune to international pressure, we must build a global movement to fight against global apartheid.”

Yousafzai was emphatic that just like student activism was at the heart of apartheid, with resistance from young people pressuring individuals and institutions to take action, a similar approach needed to be adopted by students. She said they have the power to make the call to end gender apartheid their own.

“It took a bullet to my head for the world to stand with me, what will it take for girls in Afghanistan? What are you waiting for? The case could not be clearer. We must be champions of the millions of girls in Afghanistan,” concluded Yousafzai.

Malala Yousafzai

Afghanistan women activists and journalists attend a press conference on the ending of the 16 days of Activism
Afghan student hold the portrait of Malala Yousafzai as they pray for her recovery, in Herat, Afghanistan, 13 October 2012. Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by Taliban militants for advocating education for girls, underwent surgery at a military hospital in Peshwar. (Photo: EPA / Jalil Rezayee)

Post-lecture discussion

In a panel discussion following the lecture, Graça Machel, Founder of the Graça Machel Trust and The Foundation for Community Development said, “It’s hard to accept that in 2023 we will be taken back to what we believe was a never again when United Nations established a specific unit to work daily on how to dismantle apartheid in South Africa because it had no place in modern time”.

gender apartheid

South African Women Fight Back held nationwide gatherings during 16 days of activism . About 200 protestors gathered outside Parliament to protest against Gender Based Violence in Cape town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Machel told those in attendance that what was happening in Afghanistan was an affront to all women in the world, and there could be no justification for what was happening in Afghanistan. She said it was important to follow the legal perspective and argue in legal terms but to also look at the morality side of matters. 

Graca Machel

Graca Machel. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

“Human dignity is human dignity, everywhere; it is our business,”  said Machel, cautioning that the longer the oppressive Taliban system consolidated itself the more difficult it would be to eradicate it.

Every day when we got out of the house we are not sure if will make it home, everyone is a Taliban target, no one is safe from suicide bombers,Afghanistan Human rights activist and academic, Metra Mehran shared with the audience.

Stressing the urgency of the situation Mehran said that Afghanistan was basically “an open prison” still “bravely resisting” despite Afghans being tortured and killed and their bodies thrown in the streets.

“We need the voice of rage from everyone…we can do better as a world and international community so these practices do not go without consequences. This will take decades to reverse, those women will never come back to school, those women are now depressed and victims of forced marriages.

“Why do we hesitate when we are talking about the very basic human rights of women in Afghanistan? I urge everyone to mobilise political and social support for the United Nations to declare gender apartheid a crime against humanity.” DM

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