From promises of Gender Equality to Gender Apartheid – Deteriorating situation for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan 

SoME Gavobevis 2023

22 May 2024

After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, a deteriorating situation of women and girls in the country was reported only within a couple of months. This despite initial Taliban promises to protect women’s rights. Since then, the situation has deteriorated further. The female dress code, movement restrictions, education bans and increased violence against women are some of the factors that lead more and more actors to argue that the situation in Afghanistan should be categorised as gender apartheid and a crime against humanity.   

Just four months after the Taliban takeover, UN Women reported numerous violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan. For example, new rules forced women to wear hijab and, in most situations, women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male guardian (mahram). In many professions, women also lost their jobs. They were mainly allowed to remain in professions where it was considered more socially acceptable for women to work, such as in healthcare and education. UN Women also reports that more and more women journalists are fleeing Afghanistan following the crackdown on the media in the country. While it is becoming more difficult for women to work in the media, women are also increasingly excluded from media platforms, which means that women’s rights and the situation of women in Afghanistan are becoming invisible in the country. Through this, UN Women argues that the Taliban are trying to erase women from public and political life and that this risks normalising male dominance in society. 

At the end of 2022, women were banned from working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Afghanistan. Afghan civil society immediately warned that this could have devastating consequences as their female employees were the only ones able to reach out to certain target groups, such as women and children exposed to violence. Civil society was also one of the last platforms where women could still operate and be visible within the country, which means that women now have even fewer opportunities to influence society. In addition, since the Taliban seized power, girls have been banned from attending school after 6th grade and women have been banned from attending university, making Afghanistan the only country in the world to ban girls from attending school after primary school. Education for women and girls is a human right and does not only contribute to pure knowledge but also reduces child marriage, child mortality, maternal mortality and contributes to social development. Devastating consequences can thus be expected from the Taliban’s school ban if it is not eased. In 2022, the dress code became stricter as it became mandatory for women to cover their entire face except for their eyes, and those who violate it risk punishment. The introduction of a dress code can be seen as a clear attempt to control women’s bodies and to further exclude women from public life. 

In 2023, UN sent Richard Bennet, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, to investigate and report on the human rights situation in the country. In his UN report of February 2024, Bennet also testified that women, like children, are extremely vulnerable in Afghanistan. Violence against women is reported as one of the biggest concerns, as well as the lack of access to health care and psychological support for survivors of gender-based violence. Bennet also draws attention to the severity of excluding girls from school, arguing that this not only reinforces patriarchal structures but also isolates girls from society at large and risks long-term social, psychological and economic consequences.   

Bennet argues that Taliban violations of women’s rights, such as restrictions on movement, schooling and work, amount to persecution on the basis of gender, as also reported by Human Rights Watch. Persecution of a group based on gender is a crime against humanity. Bennet and other UN representatives believe that the situation is so severe that it should be classified as ‘Gender Apartheid’, which can also be considered a crime against humanity. Afghanistan has signed several international agreements that bind the Afghan state to comply with international laws. These include CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The latter allows the ICC to prosecute individuals in Afghanistan for crimes against humanity, which also led the ICC to reopen an investigation in March 2022 into possible crimes against humanity in the country. The investigation is ongoing, and it remains to be seen what the findings will be.   

It can thus be concluded that the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan has deteriorated sharply since the Taliban took power just over two and a half years ago. There are many indications that what is happening is a crime against humanity and that the Taliban are breaking international laws. Despite this, the situation is not well known to the wider public. There is a great need to highlight the situation in Afghanistan and to spread the seriousness of what is happening to raise awareness of the situation. When women are made invisible in Afghanistan, we in the rest of the world have a responsibility to make them and their situation visible internationally to ensure that they are not forgotten, and that more international and political pressure is put on improving their situation.     

By: Sara Uppling 

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