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What Rights for Women in Taliban Afghanistan? A One-Year Update

Introduction

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in late August 2021, women’s rights around the world have taken a turn for the worst. Iranian authorities have murdered a woman for not dressing according to government-imposed requirements in late 2022[1] and the war in Ukraine that began in early 2022 has brought worrying reports of women being abducted and sexually assaulted by Russian troops[2], [3] Given these major international events, it is unsurprising that the one-year anniversary of the Taliban overthrowing the Afghan government has passed with little notice. Nevertheless, the rapid degradation of women’s and religious minorities’ rights in the country remains chilling in the context of the degeneration of women’s rights worldwide.


Socio-economic situation

Even before the Taliban seized power on 15th August 2021, Afghanistan had been experiencing a severe humanitarian and financial crisis.[4] This situation was exacerbated by the Taliban takeover and the recent 5.9 magnitude earthquake in June, which killed more than 1,000 and affected 270,000.[5] The EUAA report on key socio-economic indicators shows that a large part of the population faces increasing poverty, unemployment, and food shortages. Some people have even taken to selling their organs and marrying off young girls.[6] [7] Foreign aid cuts that were intended to punish the Taliban government have only sent the country into a deeper economic crisis.


Attacks on basic rights

The Taliban have also implemented their interpretation of Sharia law across the country by, for example, requiring women to wear face coverings and to be accompanied by a male guardian on trips. Those accused of failing to follow such orders face violence from Taliban members. In addition, those who express dissent, such as women's rights activists, or who express criticism on social media can be arbitrarily detained. Although local media was allowed to continue operating, journalists have been arrested or pressured not to report on certain issues.[8]


The Taliban banned secondary education for girls[9] not long after gaining power, making them the only country in the world currently doing this. The right to education is a recognised human right under article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


On 30th September 2022, a suicide attack on Hazara students (a persecuted ethnic minority in Afghanistan) at the Kaaj Education Centre in Kabul, whilst they were sitting a university entrance exam, killed 53 and injured a further 110, resulting in protests by women and girls from across Afghanistan.[10] The exam that they were sitting offered a crucial opportunity for the girls who had been forced to drop out of school. Instead of addressing the terrorism, the Taliban has retaliated against the protestors and family members of the victims.[11] The Taliban authorities responded by beating protesters and using live ammunition to disperse the demonstrations.[12]


In their protests, women have called for the recognition of the right to education and the reopening of secondary schools for girls. They have denounced the Taliban's lack of legitimacy due to the lack of respect for women's fundamental rights. And they have called for the social and political participation of women in society. Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, Afghan women have been fighting hard and uniting in resistance against Taliban oppression. They have held peaceful protests demanding equality, rights, justice, and peace. Their protests have continued despite the Taliban’s brutal beatings, arrests, detentions, and abduction of protesters. Chanting “Bread, Work, Freedom,” women have tirelessly fought for their basic rights and for a better and more equal Afghanistan.[13] [14]


Human rights crimes against women

Women who protested the Taliban government are being arbitrarily detained alongside their families, including small children and husbands, and subject to abuse and torture, according to the Human Rights Watch report[15] and the Washington Post.[16] The authorities assaulted and administered electric shocks[17] to detained male relatives and subjected the detainees to beatings and atrocious confinement. Journalists are also being tortured, detained, and even kidnapped without a trace.[18]


Speaking to the Human Right Watch, protesters Hypatia, Khorshid and Paryani (all pseudonyms) described the treatment that they and other women’s rights protestors experienced while detained with their families:[19]


‘I said, “Don’t put your gun on my kids.” My kids were in shock, shaking. I said, “Let me hug my kids.” They wouldn’t let me. [...] [The Taliban officer] started shouting: “You put us in a bad situation. Because of you the world did not recognize us. Where were you in the last 20 years when the US killed us and our wives? You didn’traise your voice. Now for five months you are complaining about us.” We were all afraid. [...] “All of us were in one room.…There was no space to sit. We were all sitting scrunched up.…We tried to find a place for the kids to sleep. [...] They searched our Facebook, searched our calls, searched all of that: all of our documents on our laptops. They played our messages to us and asked about them. They asked, “Where are your other friends?” They said, “You must help us find them.”’


Role of the UN and of Global Governments

What role could the UN undertake to alleviate the situation for women and minorities in Afghanistan, and how can the international community support it? Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, has described the situation in Afghanistan as one that international communities feel powerless to address:


‘Afghans were caught in a human rights crisis that the world seemed unable to deal with. The serious relapse into the rights of women and girls, retaliatory measures against opponents and critics, and the Taliban's crackdown on freedom of expression amounted to a slide into authoritarianism.’[20]


The Taliban has shown repeated disregard for international standards, including raiding safe houses, attacking migration routes and regularly retaliating against protesters with electric shock devices, physical attacks and live ammunition[CJ1] .[21] Traditional diplomatic norms expected from a government are unlikely to be recognised by the Taliban government. To quote Afghan lawyer R. Sayid, ‘expecting the Taliban to bow to international pressure was unrealistic and a waste of time’.[22]


The United Nations

The United Nations and governments who currently have a relationship with Afghanistan must seek to hold them accountable for human rights abuses, including attacks on women's rights protesters. This accountability should include measures such as establishing a new mechanism for United Nations-mandated investigation and evidence-gathering accounts of the abuses.


N. A. Andhisha, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, states: ‘The capacity, staff and resources of the United Nations Assistance Mechanism in Afghanistan were insufficient - there should be an independent human rights mechanism to document violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, to provide redress for the victims.’[23]


UN Women is on the ground in Afghanistan and works to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls. They are expanding the delivery of services to women by women to meet the overwhelming need, notably for health, education and protective services which are not only essential but can save the lives of women in the current Afghan environment. They are actively supporting women-owned businesses and employment opportunities for women in all sectors.[24] The full return of women to work is key to transforming the Afghan economy and lifting the country out of poverty. They also invest in women-led civil society organizations to help rebuild the women's movement. The women's movement is the key engine for progress and accountability on women's rights and gender equality, not just in Afghanistan but around the world.


International community

The international community must actively support Afghan women to ensure that their rights are maintained especially given the current Taliban regime. Governments working with the Taliban should put pressure on them to comply with Afghanistan's obligations under international law, including respect for freedom of expression and association, to ensure due process and prevent torture and other ill-treatment. Governments must establish and maintain generous pathways to allow those who are still trying to flee the country safe migration. They should increase refugee resettlement places for Afghans and prioritize the resettlement of women’s rights activists, who are particularly vulnerable due to ongoing activism.


The international community can also create targeted, extensive and systematic funding for programs addressing women’s rights and empowerment to facilitate the meaningful participation of women in Afghanistan, including forming and attending meetings of delegations with Taliban officials to address the issues directly with them. They must also choose to listen directly to Afghan women regarding their needs and strengthen advocacy including for women’s right to education, work and to participate in public and political life.


Conclusion

Summarising the situation to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2022, journalist Zahra Joy said:[25]


‘Afghanistan had been lost to the Taliban for 13 months. There were very few female journalists remaining in the country. Women were now fighting for their fundamental rights. Strict restrictions had been imposed on women’s lives, and on what the media could cover. Hundreds of journalists had lost their jobs and fled the country’.


The situation therefore remains grave, and with Taliban’s lack of respect for the international community and human rights, it remains to be seen how their atrocities can be curtailed without increasing pressure and intervention from the international community.

[1] The Guardian, ‘Women, life, liberty’: Iranian civil rights protests spread worldwide, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/01/women-life-liberty-iranian-civil-rights-protests-spread-worldwide> Accessed 28 October 2022. [2] NPR, ‘Rape has reportedly become a weapon in Ukraine. Finding justice may be difficult’ <https://www.npr.org/2022/04/30/1093339262/ukraine-russia-rape-war-crimes> Accessed 11th November 2022. [3] Human Rights Council, The situation of human rights in Ukraine in the context of the armed attack by the Russian Federation, 24 February to 15 May 2022, <https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/situation-human-rights-ukraine-context-armed-attack-russian-federation> Accessed 28thOctober 2022. [4] UNICEF, Afghanistan Humanitarian Situation Report, Mid-Year 2020, <https://www.unicef.org/media/93136/file/Afghanistan-SitRep-YearEnd-2020.pdf> Accessed 5th December 2022. [5] Rescue, Afghanistan Earthquake: What we know so far, <https://www.rescue.org/article/afghanistan-earthquake-what-we-know-so-far-our-response#:~:text=On%20June%2022%2C%20a%20powerful,deadly%20earthquake%20in%2020%20years.> Accessed 11th November 2022. [6] The Guardian, ‘I’ve already sold my daughters; now, my kidney’: winter in Afghanistan’s slums <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jan/23/ive-already-sold-my-daughters-now-my-kidney-winter-in-afghanistans-slums> Accessed 28th October 2022. [7] World Vision (2022) Afghan mom sells kidney for food, refuses to sell 4-year-old girl <https://www.worldvision.org/hunger-news-stories/afghan-mom-sells-kidney-for-food-refuses-to-sell-4-year-old-girl> Accessed 16th November 2022. [8] Washington Post (2022) How Afghan Women Took on the Taliban, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/afghan-women-protest-taliban/> Accessed 13th November 2022. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Ibid. [13] Washington Post, How Afghan Women Took on the Taliban, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/afghan-women-protest-taliban/> Accessed 13th November 2022. [14] The Guardian ‘Women, life, liberty’: Iranian civil rights protests spread worldwide <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/01/women-life-liberty-iranian-civil-rights-protests-spread-worldwide> Accessed 28th October 2022. [15]Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan Women Protesters Detail Taliban Abuse <https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/20/afghanistan-women-protesters-detail-taliban-abuse> Accessed 11th November 2022. [16] Washington Post n.14. [17] Human Rights Watch n.16. [18] Ibid. [19] Ibid. [20] OHCHR (2022) Human Rights Council Discusses Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, with a Focus on the Situation of Women and Girls <https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/09/human-rights-council-discusses-situation-human-rights-afghanistan-focus>Accessed 5th December 2022. [21] Human Rights Watch, n16. [22] OHCHR n21. [23] Ibid. [24] UN Women, UN agencies recommitment to women, girls in Afghanistan one year after Taliban takeover<https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/08/1124662> Accessed 11th November 2022. [25] OHCHR n.21.

[CJ1]Does the footnote only refer to the safe houses or does it detail the other attacks mentioned in the sentence? [CJ1]

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