Afghan Women Are Worse Off Than Ever

A new Amnesty report lays out the Taliban playbook for erasing half the population: electrocutions, beatings, detentions, and disappearances.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Women wearing burqas in Kabul
Women wearing burqas in Kabul
Women wearing burqas wait for free bread in front of a bakery in Kabul on Jan. 24. MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban’s brutality toward women in Afghanistan is a “suffocating crackdown” that goes beyond the widely condemned bans on work and school to include sex slavery, forced marriages, violence, torture, and disappearances, according to Amnesty International, which published a new report on the subject Wednesday.

Women detained after protesting for their rights describe horrific treatment, including electrocution, beatings with cables, and being deprived of food, water, and medical care. Taliban “whistleblowers” say the number of women detained for “moral crimes” (being outside with a man who is not a relative) is growing.

“The Taliban are deliberately depriving millions of women and girls of their human rights, and subjecting them to systematic discrimination,” said Agnès Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, in a statement. “If the international community fails to act, it will be abandoning women and girls in Afghanistan, and undermining human rights everywhere.”

The Taliban’s brutality toward women in Afghanistan is a “suffocating crackdown” that goes beyond the widely condemned bans on work and school to include sex slavery, forced marriages, violence, torture, and disappearances, according to Amnesty International, which published a new report on the subject Wednesday.

Women detained after protesting for their rights describe horrific treatment, including electrocution, beatings with cables, and being deprived of food, water, and medical care. Taliban “whistleblowers” say the number of women detained for “moral crimes” (being outside with a man who is not a relative) is growing.

“The Taliban are deliberately depriving millions of women and girls of their human rights, and subjecting them to systematic discrimination,” said Agnès Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, in a statement. “If the international community fails to act, it will be abandoning women and girls in Afghanistan, and undermining human rights everywhere.”

The report, Death in Slow Motion: Women and Girls Under Taliban Rule, comes almost one year after the Taliban’s return to power last August. Since then, conditions for all Afghans have deteriorated, though the treatment of women and girls has been particularly concerning, as the Islamists have appeared determined to expunge them from all social involvement. Women have been sacked from their jobs and banned from secondary school and, effectively, all higher education.

Taliban figures, however, ensure their own daughters are educated, either in privately run schools in Afghanistan or abroad. Many have families living outside Afghanistan who are not subject to the strictures they are imposing on Afghans. Pressure from the international community, including neighbors like Iran and China, as well as the United States and the United Nations, has yielded no concessions from the Taliban on restoring women’s liberties. Amnesty says things have only gotten worse.

It notes that the Taliban have reneged on commitments voiced after their return to power to “uphold the rights of women and girls” and have instead imposed “systematic discrimination … [that] has violated the rights of these women and girls.”

In the weeks and months after the Taliban’s takeover, women took to the streets to protest against restrictions that were introduced almost immediately. Many saw them as a sign of things to come, remembering the harshness of the earlier Taliban attempt to run the country from 1996-2001. Despite Taliban promises, after they retook power, women were ordered to stay indoors and were permitted outside their homes only with a male relative as a chaperone. Regulations on clothing followed soon after, with attention to such minutiae as how much of the face can be shown and a ban on perfume.

Women protesters who were detained and beaten showed their injuries publicly. That prompted a change of tactics, according to women quoted in the Amnesty report, who said they were later beaten on areas of their bodies, such as breasts and the pubic area, that they could not show publicly.

“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,” the report quotes one woman as saying. Women were released from arbitrary detention after being forced to sign pledges that they and family members would not protest or speak publicly about their experience in detention.

Amnesty said four Taliban whistleblowers revealed details of the detention and abuse of women and girls in prison-like facilities. A university student who was detained for being outside her home without a chaperone said that she was given electric shocks by her armed Taliban captors, who also verbally abused her and threatened to kill her. Another said her captors screamed at her that protesting women were the reason the United States had frozen Afghanistan’s foreign reserves.

Child and forced marriages, which the Taliban consistently deny, have also soared since last August, the report says. “The most common drivers include the economic and humanitarian crisis; the lack of educational and professional prospects for women and girls; families’ perceived need to protect their daughters from marriage with a Taliban member; families forcing women and girls to marry Taliban members; and Taliban members forcing women and girls to marry them,” it says.

Reports by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, prepared monthly but not released publicly, also refer to the vulnerability of Afghan boys and girls to exploitation by Taliban figures. Boys are sexually exploited, as well as recruited as child soldiers or suicide bombers. Now that they are in power, Taliban officials are taking young women as second, third, and fourth wives, despite a public order from the leadership for restraint.

In the Amnesty report, one advocate describes a “perfect storm” of conditions for such child exploitation: misogynistic policies, girls barred from education, ongoing violence, poverty, unemployment, lack of security and rule of law, drought, hunger, and uncertainty. With no jobs, no money, and little food, some Afghan families feel forced to sell their children. The report quotes a 35-year-old woman saying she sold her 13-year-old daughter last September for the equivalent of $670, an enormous amount in the impoverished country.

“She said she was considering marrying off her 10-year-old daughter as well, but she was reluctant to do so, as she hoped this daughter might provide for the family in the future,” the report says. “She explained, ‘She went all the way to fifth grade. 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.’”

During the 20 years of the Western-supported Afghan Republic, women’s rights advanced notably, especially in education. Maternal and infant mortality rates improved significantly with greater access to health care. Domestic violence was a criminal offense, and shelters were set up across the country to provide women with refuge from abusive situations.

But the Taliban have rolled all that back. The Afghan Constitution, which enshrined women’s rights, is unrecognized by the Taliban. Health care has been significantly curtailed. The domestic violence shelters have been shuttered, even as domestic violence is increasing with the stress of the economic crisis.

The Taliban’s Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada reportedly abolished all laws enacted during the 20 years of the republic, replaced by sharia.

The only time things were this bad for Afghan women was the last time the Taliban were in charge, said Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. As the Taliban took control of regions of Afghanistan on their way to victory, they enforced policies against women that should have made clear their intentions once they came to power. But the international community swallowed Taliban promises that things would be different this time around.

“In accepting those assurances, the international community believed what was convenient for them, not what Afghan women and the Taliban’s own actions, then, in Taliban-controlled areas, told them. And since then the response has been deep concern, strongly worded statements, and almost nothing more,” Barr said.

Some U.S. lawmakers are trying to do a little more. On Wednesday, Sens. Robert Menendez and James Risch, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined by other senior lawmakers, urged U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to reimpose travel bans on Taliban leaders. “We must not stand by as the Taliban seeks to erase the human rights of Afghan women and girls,” the senators wrote.

The U.N. Security Council is due to reconsider exemptions on travel bans on Taliban figures under terrorist sanction by Aug. 20, which if lifted, Barr said, would send a message that they were accountable for their actions. If the exemptions are extended, Taliban leaders will continue to be able to make diplomatic trips abroad and attempt to shore up their hold on the country.

Barr noted that the lack of reaction to the deliberate rollback of women’s rights by the Taliban sets a standard of acceptability for women around the world, including in developed countries like the United States, where draconian restrictions on abortion and other reproductive rights have already sharply curtailed women’s rights.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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