The Taliban in Afghanistan have systematically restricted the human rights of women and girls and suffocated all aspects of their lives, UN experts said, adding that such treatment could amount to ‘"gender* apartheid’."
In a joint report to the UN Human Rights Council, Richard Bennett, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, and Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, said the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan was the worst globally.
“Women and girls in Afghanistan are experiencing severe discrimination that may amount to gender persecution – a crime against humanity – and be characterised as gender apartheid, as the de facto authorities appear to be governing by systemic discrimination with the intention to subject women and girls to total domination,” Bennett said.
“While the backlash against women’s and girls’ rights has unfolded in different countries and regions in recent years, nowhere else in the world has there been an attack as widespread, systematic and all-encompassing on the rights of women and girls as in Afghanistan,” Estrada-Tanck said.
Edicts issued by the Taliban since they took control of the country in August 2021 have imposed widespread restrictions on the rights of women and girls, including their freedom of movement, attire and behaviour, access to education, work, health and justice, the experts said.
Restrictions have also dramatically affected the participation of women and girls in political, public, economic and socio-cultural life, and led to a significant increase in spousal and intrafamily violence against women and girls.
“We are alive, but not living”.
The report, which highlights the resilience and strength of Afghan women in the face of extremely repressive conditions, includes brief descriptions of daily life by women, who told the experts how “day by day, the walls close in.” Following a ban on education for girls, female university students described their situation as: “I am a prisoner of my gender,” and “We have no future.”
Experts also heard testimonies from women seeking a divorce, but who were admonished by a judge with remarks such as: “Your hand is not broken, your leg is not broken, why do you want a divorce?”. Women who reported domestic violence to the police were told they “should not complain”, or that they probably “deserved being beaten,” according to the report.
The experts travelled to Afghanistan from 27 April to 4 May and visited Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. They met with Afghan women and men in a variety of sectors, including civil society, entrepreneurs, religious leaders, teachers, journalists, UN agencies, the diplomatic community, international NGOs and de facto officials.
In the report, the experts say they were deeply concerned that “gender persecution” is occurring in Afghanistan under the rule of the de facto authorities. “Gender persecution” constitutes a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute, the report notes.
The report also highlights that a ban on female education makes Afghanistan “the only country in the world” where girls and young women are forbidden from attending secondary school and higher education institutions.
“The blatant violations to the fundamental right to have access to quality education will have lifelong consequences regarding not only employment opportunities but also access to basic services such as health care,” it states.
The report also points out how women in Afghanistan today are prohibited from working outside the home in most sectors, from leaving their home without a male relative, or Maharam, from accessing public baths, parks, and gyms, and moving freely around the country.
This suffocating environment is having an impact on the mental health of women and girls, with widespread reports of depression and suicide especially among adolescent girls prevented from pursuing education, the report notes.
No legal protection
Restrictions on women and girls were also limiting their access to routine and emergency health care, with dire consequences for their health and sexual and reproductive rights, while adding more pressure on a health system already strained by poverty and years of war.
“As girls and women can be provided care only by female doctors unless the restrictions are reversed rapidly, there is a real risk of multiple preventable deaths, which could amount to femicide,” the report states.
The UN experts said they were deeply concerned by an absence of legal protections for women and girls, the systematic enforcement of discrimination and the normalization of sex-based violence, including sex-related killings, forced and child marriage, sale of children and body organs, child labour, trafficking and unsafe migration.
The lack of a clear and predictable legal system in Afghanistan contributes to the perpetuation of violence against women and an absence of accountability for perpetrators, the report notes. Women have no access to women legal professionals. Some women lawyers continue to provide legal services from their homes but are prohibited from entering courtrooms in most locations.
“Far from ‘protecting’ women and girls as they claim, they perpetuate the most extreme forms of gender-based discrimination and generalized censorship through restrictive edicts targeting women and girls, the abolition of legal protections and accountability mechanisms for gender-based violence, and the ongoing denial of rights,” the report says.
The report calls on the de facto authorities to respect and restore women’s and girls’ human rights and urged the international community to remain engaged in the situation in Afghanistan and take concrete steps to support accountability for serious human rights violations.
* Editor’s note:
The word “gender” is retained in quoted passages in this report and where international law and reports using “gender” are referenced. In every case, Women’s Rights Network take the word gender to mean sex.
Elsewhere, the word “gender” has been replaced by “sex” for clarity.