Ms Delphine Goes
Delphine Goes holds a Master of Laws (cum laude) at Ghent University (Belgium). She is mostly passionate about human rights, international humanitarian law, and environmental law.
“For Afghan girls, the earth is unbearable, and the sky is unreachable.” To this day, “Afghanistan is the most repressive country in the world for women’s rights.”
When the Taliban seized power for the first time, at the end of the 90s, girls and women, older than 12, were prohibited from going to school and were obliged to wear a burqa. Women were no longer welcome in universities and all sort of entertainment, such as dance and television, was banned. The Taliban created a climate of gender apartheid, where women were stripped of many of their human rights, e.g. the prohibition of going to work, the violation of women’s bodily integrity by the allowance of public executions of women and corporal punishments.
When the international troops left Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban overthrew the current regime and regained power. When taking power, the Taliban assured they would not discriminate or commit violence against women to the extent of their rights “fitting within the framework of Sharia law”. However, we see a country starting to bloom a little after years of war and human rights violations, falling back to its old patterns.
Since the most recent Taliban takeover, all progress that was made since 2002 for women and girls has been erased, as women are denied their fundamental rights and freedoms and experience discrimination on a daily basis. Women have reported feeling invisible, isolated and suffocated, as they are banned from work, schools, public baths, sports facilities, public offices, amusement parks, and even more. Their freedom of movement is denied, they must comply with a strict dress code and are excluded from public life.
As a side note, since there is a common miscomprehension, it is important to clarify that discrimination and mistreatment of women did not start under Taliban rule. Although it became more visible in the 90s, women have been discriminated against for decades in the country, and each time, these discriminatory practices were ‘justified’ by different ideologies and traditional norms.
The rights of Afghan women are in reality very limited to this day, just as in the past. According to Human Rights Watch, in Afghanistan, the human rights of women and girls are more restricted than anywhere else in the world.
Afghanistan, and thus Taliban de facto authorities have obligations towards women under several international human rights treaties, e.g. the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). These obligations are broad and ensure at least a minimum level of protection. The full enjoyment of human rights for Afghan women is limited by cultural, traditional and historical customs. CEDAW tackles the issue of discriminatory traditional norms and customs. These traditional roles can cause discrimination or can be discriminatory and negatively impact women. CEDAW puts an obligation on Afghanistan to take measures to eliminate prejudices and customs which are based on gender stereotypes.
The goal of this post is to raise awareness and inform about the current state of women in Afghanistan and how several of their human rights, namely the right to education, the right to safety and the right to health, are impaired, due to the daily practices in Afghanistan characterised by a widespread presence of discrimination. The fundamental denial of basic human rights may amount to gender persecution, according to the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan.
The right to education
Women are denied their right to education in Afghanistan. The right to education, as laid down in Article 10 CEDAW, includes obligations for Afghanistan to respect, protect and ensure this right. This implies that Afghanistan may not, without legitimate reasons, limit or restrict women’s access to education in a way that prevents women from enjoying, de jure or de facto, their right to education. Afghanistan should have an active policy to eliminate discriminatory practices in the educational system and protect women against discrimination. It is irrelevant whether this discrimination is inflicted by private actors, or by state action. Furthermore, the right to education entails that Afghanistan should make education ‘available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable’ to women’s needs. In the case of Afghanistan, separate schools for girls are permitted as a special temporary measure, due to the social reality. But if there are separate schools, the same standards and programs should be offered.
To this day, Afghanistan has the highest level of illiteracy in the world. In 2020, it was estimated that only 20% of the women in Afghanistan were literate and around 50% of the men. Around 38% of girls below 18 were then estimated to be in school.
In attempts to rebuild Afghanistan after the first Taliban removal, women’s education was put forward as a tool to empower women in all aspects of life. However, years of conflict have impaired the education system. One obstacle concerns the safety of girls in Afghanistan. Taliban and other extremist groups attacked girls’ schools, and teachers and also harassed girls on the way to school. Between 2015 and 2019, it is estimated that more than a thousand attacks occurred. In April 2022, there was an attack near a high school and education centre that killed six people. In September 2022, a suicide attack on an education centre caused the death of 53 women and girls.
With the Taliban takeover in 2021, the advancement of women’s education was erased. UN experts say that the current situation has undone all progress and equals the previous Taliban period.
In no time, a ban on education for girls and women was established. Afghan girls and women, aged above 12, were prohibited from going to secondary school. Schools have been under attack several times. Even when schools for boys reopened, schools for girls stayed closed. However, some girl schools stayed open in certain areas, e.g. Zabul and Herat. This is possible because the Taliban think that those schools are according to their rules. However, it is not clear what those rules imply or when other girl schools could reopen.
At the start of the new school year, many girls were still hopeful, after 7 months without any education. On March 23 2022, the first day of the new school year, girls who were present at school were sent back home, and the ban on girls in secondary education was prolonged.
Regarding tertiary education, at the start of the second year of the Taliban rule, women could only attend public universities that were close by. In these universities, they were prohibited from studying several professions, e.g. law, journalism and engineering. Girls have to be covered in a burqa on the way to and from school, and a policy of gender segregation was established at the universities.
However, in December 2022, another ban came in immediately suspending women from universities. The reasons given for this suspension by the Minister of Higher Education was the presence of female students in dormitories and mixed classes. The fact that many women travelled to university without a male companion and that there was no control over the obligation for women to wear their hijab were other factors in closing the universities.
Until this day, the Taliban has banned women and girls from secondary school and tertiary education. Therefore, it is only in Afghanistan that there is a real outspoken ban for girls to go to secondary school.
The right to education is closely linked to the right to employment. Concerning the right to employment, restrictions for women are severe. At first, female teachers were banned and in other professions, most women were also forced to leave their jobs and stay at home. Women were excluded from working in the justice sector, from service jobs etc. If allowed to work, a wide range of discriminatory practices are present, for instance, women should be accompanied by a male relative to go to their work, establishing a de facto ban. All women in municipal city positions were replaced by men. The Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs was also dismantled.
In December 2022, the Taliban banned women from working for NGOs, both domestic and international, and to provide aid delivery. In addition, the UN was informed that Afghan women were no longer allowed to work in the UN programs in Afghanistan.
Without their contribution to NGOs, humanitarian protection services and other human rights activities have lost a major thriving source. The NGO system itself does not function without women and several functions can only be exercised in Afghanistan by women. For instance, communication with female heads of households is only possible in a safe and culturally appropriate way if women are involved. Several care responsibilities cannot be performed by men, making it very hard to reach Afghan women without female NGO workers, putting women in a vulnerable position.
The right to health
According to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to health does not mean a person has the right to be healthy, but it constitutes an obligation for Afghanistan to act to protect and fulfil the right to health of Afghan people. It includes claims to health care, clean water, decent housing, safe food etc. Both physical and mental health are implied. To determine the extent of this right, biological and socio-economic factors of individuals are considered.
The prohibition of discrimination based on sex is an integral part of the right to health. The right to health must be respected and protected without discrimination and equal access to health care for everyone.
Afghan women have limited access to health care, especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as information about health care. Rural women are even more affected by poverty and restricted access to health care services, clean water and sanitary services. In 2021, Afghanistan was already in a crisis due to COVID-19, as it suffered a severe drought and food insecurity. With the Taliban takeover, the crisis worsened. Many healthcare employees had to flee or are unpaid and access to medicines is limited. It was estimated that 50% of the Afghan people needed humanitarian assistance. A year later, half the population suffered food insecurity at a crisis or emergency level. Six million Afghans are at risk of starvation.
The lack of sufficient medicine supplies is a threat to the health of Afghan women, and the whole Afghan population. People have died from diseases and infections that could be cured easily with the right medicines, e.g. uterine bleeding or malnutrition, for the sole reason that medicines were unavailable.
In addition, as during the previous Taliban ruling, women cannot access healthcare without being accompanied by a male relative and cannot be examined without their approval. In January 2023, the Taliban imposed an additional restriction, namely that women, even with a male chaperone, cannot see any male doctors anymore. This puts women in extremely vulnerable positions, as there are only a few female doctors available, whose number will not increase if women cannot be educated.
In 2022, other research showed that 47% of the women experienced high psychological distress, caused by trauma and violence, but also by patriarchal attitudes and traditional customs, such as teenage pregnancy. Thereby, some reports have shown that the mental health of both women and men experienced many negative consequences since the Taliban takeover. Among women and girls, depression and negative thoughts are widespread. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan has expressed deep concern about the well-being of girls and argues that many of them are in desperate need of mental health support.
The right to safety
The right to safety, derived from Article 3 UDHR, implies that safety policies and legislation with corresponding enforcement mechanisms should be in place to protect the life and security of persons. The right to safety does not imply that everyone should be safe at any moment, but should be understood as the responsibility of States to protect their people against threats to their safety and life, such as violence, killings etc. by e.g. implementing safety measures. In 2019, Afghanistan was “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”
Violence is the main threat to the safety of the Afghan women. Violence against women (hereinafter: VAW) takes many forms, such as sexual violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, exploitation, gender-based violence (hereinafter GBV), harassment and honour killing. According to CEDAW’s Recommendation on Violence Against Women gender-based violence is
violence directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately and it includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.
Between 2016 and 2020, the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs conducted an investigation that shows that more than 50% of Afghan women experienced some type of violence, physical, sexual or psychological.
In the most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan, it was revealed that GBV and sexual violence against women were still very present, even increasing. This violence goes without punishment and hardly any support exists for victims. Since the Taliban takeover, reports show that about 280 women died of an unnatural death, and in many cases, indications of sexual violence were highly present.
The Taliban dismantled the structures that were put in place to eliminate VAW and to support victims. The enforcement, namely through the prosecution and the courts that reviewed cases, of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women was halted. Research from Amnesty International (hereinafter: AI) indicated that the dismantling of support systems for victims of GBV leaves women to only their means. The safehouses for women escaping domestic abuse were closed. Afghan women now have to return to their violent families, fearing more domestic violence or they should go to prison to find shelter, both situations putting Afghan women in extremely vulnerable situations.
Not only is the Taliban committing VAW at a large scale, but private actors make up a great part as perpetrators as well. Thereby, the perpetrators once sent to prison by judges now want to take revenge. The Taliban opened several prisons and freed many persons, without granting any protection to the persons that convicted them. Many of these persons threatened to take revenge on the female judges.
Afghan women are discriminated against daily since their rights to education, health and safety are violated on a large scale and no measures are taken to ensure protection. The Taliban constantly violates CEDAW and other international legal instruments with their actions. Afghan women are left to their means and face severe consequences for the violations of their human rights. There is an urgent need for international actors, most importantly the United Nations, to step up and act to help the Afghan women and hold perpetrators accountable. A halt should be put to the continuous human rights violations of Afghan women, by implementing effective protection mechanisms and helping them.
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