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Afghanistan: 'Suffocating crackdown' on rights of women and girls over past year under Taliban

Afghan woman portrait
Afghan woman portrait © Kiana Hayeri / Amnesty International

Detained protesters beaten on breasts and between legs ‘so they cannot show world’

Released protesters made to sign ‘non-disclosure agreements’ so they cannot talk about treatment or take part in further protests

‘Moral corruption’ arrests, strict imposition of chaperone system and no domestic violence rescue

Surge in child marriage with girls as young as 10 married to Taliban

UK urged to rapidly increase scale and pace of stalled resettlement programme

UK sanctions and travel bans on Taliban urged as leverage for improvement

‘In the last year, women’s rights in Afghanistan have wound back 20 years’ – Lydia Parker

The rights of women and girls in Afghanistan have been decimated in the year since the Taliban took over, with a surge in child marriage, the almost total denial of education beyond ten, the introduction of a stifling male guardian system, as well as the strict policing of ‘moral crimes’ and widespread reports of torture and arrest for those who dare to protest, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

Amnesty researchers recently returned from the country and have been conducting research and interviews with women in the country throughout the past year. The picture which emerges is one of an almost complete reversal of the hard-won progress over the previous decades, with the Taliban forcing women out of public office and life, and back under the patriarchal control of the home.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“This suffocating crackdown against Afghanistan’s female population is increasing day-by-day.

“Every daily detail - whether they go to school, if and how they work, if and how they leave the house - is controlled and heavily restricted.

“If the international community fails to act, it will be abandoning women and girls in Afghanistan, and undermining human rights everywhere.”

Detained protesters beaten on breasts and between legs ‘so they cannot show world

Despite initial public commitments to uphold the rights of women and girls, the Taliban introduced policies which systematically violate their basic rights and access to education and jobs.

Women and girls across Afghanistan reacted to this crackdown with a wave of protests. In response, the Taliban targeted protesters with harassment and abuse, arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and physical and psychological torture.

One protester who was arrested and detained for several days this year told Amnesty:

“[The Taliban guards] kept coming to my room and showing me pictures of my family. They kept repeating… ‘We can kill them, all of them, and you won’t be able to do anything… Don’t cry, don’t make a scene. After protesting, you should have expected days like this’.”

She also described being severely beaten:

“They locked the door. They started screaming at me… [One Taliban member] said, ‘You nasty woman… America is not giving us the money because of you bitches’… Then he kicked me. It was so strong that my back was injured, and he kicked my chin too… I still feel the pain in my mouth. It hurts whenever I want to talk.”

Two women said that after photos were posted of a fellow protester’s injuries on social media, Taliban members developed a new strategy to prevent them from showing their injuries publicly.

One of the women told Amnesty:

“We were beaten on our breasts and between the legs. They did this to us so that we couldn’t show the world. A soldier who was walking next to me hit me in my breast, and he said, ‘I can kill you right now, and no one would say anything’. This happened every time we went out: we were insulted – physically, verbally, and emotionally.”

Detained protesters also had inadequate access to food, water, ventilation, sanitary products and health care. To secure their release, the women were forced to sign ‘non-disclosure agreements’ promising that they and their family members would neither protest again, nor speak publicly about their experiences in detention.

‘Moral corruption’ arrests, strict imposition of chaperone system and no domestic violence rescue

According to four whistleblowers from Taliban-run detention centres, the Taliban has increasingly arrested and detained women and girls for minor violations of their discriminatory policies, such as the rule against appearing in public without a mahram – a male chaperone -  or with a man who does not qualify as a mahram. Those arrested are usually charged with the ambiguous ‘crime’ of ‘moral corruption’.

A prison staff member explained:

“Sometimes they bring the boys and girls from the coffee shop... [Or] if they see a woman who is not with a mahram, she can be arrested... Before these kinds of cases were not in the prison… The numbers are increasing each month.”

One university student, who was detained this year, told Amnesty that she was threatened and beaten after being arrested on charges related to the mahram restrictions.

She said that Taliban members

“started giving me electric shocks… on my shoulder, face, neck, everywhere they could… They were calling me a prostitute [and] a bitch… The one holding the gun said, ‘I will kill you, and no one will be able to find your body’.”

The whistleblowers said that survivors of gender-based violence, who previously lived in shelters or who attempted to flee abuse after the Taliban’s takeover, are now being imprisoned in detention centres.

One of the staff members said: “Some came by approaching the Taliban themselves, and asking, ‘Where is your shelter?’ [The Taliban] had no place, so they ended up in prison.”

These women and girls have been subjected to solitary confinement, beatings and other forms of torture, and forced to endure inhumane conditions, including overcrowding and inadequate access to food, water, and heating in winter months.

Surge in child marriage: “If they don’t open the school, I will have to marry her off.”

According to Amnesty’s research - corroborated by national and international organisations operating in Afghanistan, local activists and other experts - the rates of child, early and forced marriage in Afghanistan are surging under Taliban rule.

The key causal factors for the increase include the economic and humanitarian crisis; the lack of educational and professional prospects for women and girls; families forcing women and girls to marry Taliban members; and Taliban members forcing women and girls to marry them.

Stephanie Sinclair, director of Too Young to Wed, an organisation working on child, early and forced marriage, explained:

“In Afghanistan, it’s a perfect storm for child marriage. You have a patriarchal government, war, poverty, drought, girls out of school – with all of these factors combined… we knew child marriage was going to go through the roof.”

Khorsheed*, a 35-year-old from a central province of Afghanistan, told Amnesty that the economic crisis compelled her to marry off her 13-year-old daughter to a 30-year-old neighbour in September 2021, in exchange for a ‘bride price’ of 60,000 Afghanis (around £550). She said that after her daughter’s marriage, she felt relieved and added: “She won’t be hungry anymore.”

Khorsheed said she was also considering marrying off her 10-year-old daughter, but was reluctant to do so, as she hoped this daughter might provide for the family in the future.

She explained:

“I wanted her to study more. She would be able to read and write, and speak English, and earn… I have a hope that this daughter will become something, and she will support the family. Of course, if they don’t open the school, I will have to marry her off.”

Education blocked

The Taliban continue to block education for the vast majority of secondary school girls. Their scheduled return to school on 23 March this year, was short-lived. Later the same day, the Taliban sent the girls home, citing a “technical issue” related to their uniforms. Four months later, the Taliban continues to deny girls’ access to education.

Fatima*, a 25-year-old high school teacher based in Nangarhar province, told Amnesty:

“These young girls just wanted to have a future, and now they don’t see any future ahead of them.”

At university level, the Taliban’s harassment of female students – as well as restrictions on students’ behaviour, dress and opportunities – has created an unsafe environment where female students are systematically disadvantaged. Many female students have now either stopped attending, or decided not to enrol in university at all.

Brishna*, a 21-year-old student at Kabul University, told Amnesty:

“[The] guards outside the university yell at us and say, ‘Fix your clothes, your scarf... Why are your feet visible?’… [The] head of our department came to our class and told us, ‘Be careful – we can only protect you when you are inside the faculty building… If Taliban members try to harm you or harass you, we won’t be able to stop them’.”

UK response and responsibility

The Ministry of Defence says 9,000  Afghans were resettled under its the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). In addition to ARAP, the government opened the Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) in January this year, which will allow up to 20,000 refugees to settle in the UK, 5,000 of them were meant to be brought here this year. However, Amnesty has said the scale and pace of the scheme needs to be radically increased, as it has currently essentially stalled.

The treatment of those who have arrived in the UK since August last year has also been appalling, with thousands of Afghan families still languishing in overcrowded hotel rooms, because of inadequate provision of suitable housing.

Lydia Parker, Amnesty UK’s Women’s Rights Programme Director, said:

“In the last year, women’s rights in Afghanistan have wound back 20 years. It’s heart-breaking to watch the extreme pace of the reversal of rights, protections and access which were so carefully put in place by brave women and girls who thought they were forging a new future.

“This is the same old Taliban, with the same old views and methods. We need to enforce a different path if there is any chance of preventing the total backslide of rights. It’s important that the issue of women and girls is at the forefront of any discussion and negotiations, but women need to be at the table, not just on the agenda. Ensuring that women are at the table for discussions is a very clear and measurable thing the UK can insist on with the Taliban.

“The UK also needs to rapidly increase the pace and scale of its evacuation of survivors of gender-based violence and women’s rights defenders who need to flee to safety. We also need to see a huge improvement in the way Afghans who are brought here are treated with proper resourcing for housing. It’s not acceptable to simply fly people here and dump them in overcrowded hotels indefinitely.”

Amnesty also wants to see the UK Government Identify and use forms of leverage that may influence the Taliban without harming the Afghan people – such as targeted sanctions or travel bans imposed through a UN Security Council resolution – in a coordinated and vigorous manner, to end the Taliban’s violations of the rights of women and girls and make clear what policy steps are required for the lifting of such measures.

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