By Aara Ramesh
On Sunday, Aug. 16, as the world watched on in horror and shock, the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, fell to the forces of the notoriously extremist Taliban, prompting the U.S.-endorsed president to flee the country and American operatives to evacuate all diplomatic personnel from the local embassy.
As Taliban forces have advanced over the last month, there was a growing sense of fear that the group’s territorial gain would undo all the human rights gains achieved in the past several decades, since the international community, led by the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, intervened in the region.
Now, as the world grapples with what this will mean for the global order and the future of Afghanistan, the most amount of concern seems to be reserved — and perhaps rightly so — for Afghan women and girls. Per one Afghan activist and former legislator, “Women in Afghanistan are the most at danger or most at-risk population of the country.” In fact, per reports, those women who have already been caught up in the Taliban’s forward sweep are being treated “like prisoners in [their own] home.”
Though the job was admittedly far from being complete, Human Rights Watch says that it is hard to ignore the fact that, over the past two decades, tremendous strides have been made in women’s and girls’ rights, particularly in terms of their access to the justice system, through the support and funding from international communities.
This has included legal protections, new and revised laws, advocacy organizations being created and grown, and educating women lawyers, prosecutors, and judges. As a result, the reporting and investigation of violent crimes against women has increased, as have convictions, albeit to a lesser extent.
Now, apparently, the Taliban intends to return the country to the era of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” as it was known in 1996–2001. Under that highly oppressive regime, government and policy were guided by a narrow, harsh interpretation and strict enforcement of sharia law.
The Washington Post recounts that, at the time, men were forced to sport beards and women had to wear burqas. Famously, girls were not allowed to go to school, and women had to be accompanied by a male chaperone at all times. Anyone found to be breaking these laws were subjected to corporal punishment, public floggings, and executions, some of which were even held at Ghazi Stadium in Kabul.
Already, some sources are reporting instances wherein Taliban leaders of the Badakhshan and Takhar provinces demanded a list from local religious leaders of unmarried girls and widows between the ages of 15 and 45, with the intention of marrying them off to Taliban commandos. This is tantamount to sexual slavery, with the “offering” of women serving as an incentive for men to join the Taliban.
Apparently, they are also planning to take the coerced brides across the border into Pakistan for “re-education” and indoctrination in “authentic” — and austere — Islamic practices. Allegedly, they are also planning to prohibit girls being educated after the age of 12, and will not allow women to work.
All of this is strictly prohibited by international law. Resolution 1820, adopted by the UN in 2008, says that sexual violence during war time is a tactic used to humiliate and dominate local communities by inspiring fear, and that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes [and] crimes against humanity.”
One Kabul woman, in an anonymous op-ed, recounted her harrowing tale of facing intimidation, threats, and harassment in the lead-up to this latest Taliban take-over. Writing about her fears, she says that she has been forced to hide her hard-won identification documents, diplomas, and certificates as a precautionary measure.
But in her account, it is apparent that it is not just the economic and academic rights that women stand to lose. The author talks wistfully about the manicures she loves getting, meeting friends for coffee, listening to non-religious music, going out alone, wearing dresses, and lipstick — all of which are most likely going to be outlawed by the new government.
The situation extends even further, however, with the UN categorically saying that “the situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe.” Just last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke about the “fear and dread” across Afghanistan, which had driven people to flee their homes.
Per a report from the agency from just a handful of days ago, nearly 250,000 Afghans have fled their homes since the end of May as a result of the Taliban advance, with a full 80% of those being women and children. The UN also estimates that there are already 5 million internally displaced people within Afghanistan, with almost 360,000 joining the category this year alone.
The UN says that almost half of the country’s population are in dire need of emergency relief assistance — a proportion that will likely rise as the Taliban extends and tightens its grip on political power.
In addition, the agency has documented cases of severe malnutrition to the point of being sick in half of all children under the age of five. As people fled to Kabul, the refugee camps set up reported an acute dearth of clean water and hygiene, prompting the spread of further diseases like cholera.
And of course Covid-19 is still a reality plaguing the population, with at least 2,000 cases being reported and counted daily, 100 of which end up being fatal. Healthcare centers are saying that their patient load has nearly doubled in the last couple of months, and has increased 30% overall compared to last year,
On top of all this, “disturbing” reports have emerged about Taliban commandos’ actions during their advance, with multiple international organizations — echoed by the U.S. — airing suspicions that Taliban forces are engaging in extrajudicial killings. For instance, in July, video emerged that apparently depicted Taliban operatives executing, via gunfire, at least 22 members of an Afghan Special Forces unit.
They are said to be executing women, journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists over the past few months as they advanced towards the capital. At the end of July, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Taliban troops were enacting violence upon people known to be critical of them, including by detaining and executing suspected members of government, soldiers, civilians, and law enforcement forces, as well as anyone suspected of harboring pro-government sympathies.
The UN also says that more women and children were killed and wounded in the first six months of the year than in the first half of any year since 2009, when the agency started maintaining such records. Per the UN, in the month beginning July 9, at least 183 civilians have been killed and an additional 1,181 injured in just four cities. It also called out the “rapid escalation of violations against children,” with 27 killed and 136 injured in a span of 72 hours.
Under international law, it is a war crime to summarily execute anyone in custody, force their disappearance, or mistreat them in any way. Even detaining civilians is illegal, except under very specific security circumstances, as are retaliatory attacks.