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What’s Happening in Afghanistan? Evolution and Conflict in Women’s Rights - Part II

Notorious for their misogynistic policies and violence, the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan in 1996. During the five years of their leadership, before the 9/11 attacks led to the United States invading the country, women lost their rights to education, work, and political representation.

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, famously stated: "[T]here cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women" and in the years following the US invasion, women's rights transformed. A 2003 constitution enshrined women's rights with Afghanistan adopting the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law in 2009 . Women and girls were once more able to access work, education, and the social and economic benefits which these environments provide.

In early 2020, the government of the United States and the Taliban signed a Peace Deal addressing four central issues: ceasefire, withdrawing foreign troops, intra-Afghan negotiations, and counterterrorism. Within 18 months of the deal being signed, the US government withdrew their final troops from Afghanistan, ending its military presence in the country after nearly 20 years. The agreement was met with equal amounts of optimism and caution from the international community, and Afghan society alike.

Within a matter of days, the Taliban conducted a swift offensive which reinstated their power in the country, causing global concern that women in Afghanistan would once again lose the rights that they had only recently regained. Despite initial promises that women would be allowed to exercise their rights within Sharia law, years of gradual progress to secure women's rights were reversed in mere months.

Despite the relative stability offered by international interventions in the country, the Taliban gained control over Afghanistan which ranked at the bottom of several socioeconomic indices, including the Human Development Index, even before the Taliban takeover. With widespread unemployment, a collapsing housing market, increased rates of malnutrition, and plummeting value of its currency, international sanctions placed on the country since the Taliban takeover have pushed Afghanistan into an 'economic catastrophe'. The UNDP estimates that as many as 97 percent of the Afghan population is living in poverty, up from 72 percent in 2018. According to UN resident and humanitarian coordinator Ramiz Alakbarov, "a staggering 95% of Afghans are not getting enough to eat, with that number rising to almost 100% in female-headed households". Exacerbating the economic crisis, Afghanistan has been impacted by droughts and natural disasters, such as flash floods and the June 2022 earthquake, having a detrimental impact on the nation's agriculture sector.

Whilst these factors can perhaps be regarded as side-effects of the Taliban regime, there have, of course, been rules and regulations directly imposed by the new government, to the detriment of Afghani society. The most acute effects are felt by women and girls. As of August 2022, researchers observed 70 new rules that had been imposed on women in Afghanistan, with some of the policies implemented since August 2021 as follows:

  • Taliban decrees have banned girls and women from education at the secondary and university level, meaning that there are more than 5.5 million girls barred from education.

  • The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been abolished, and replaced with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue- also known as the ‘morality police’.

  • 125,000 women have been fired from government jobs, leaving no female-held positions in the cabinet of the de facto administration-effectively eliminating women’s right to political participation.

  • In May 2022, the Taliban decreed that women must cover their faces in public and remain in their homes except in cases of necessity. Since then, driving licences are no longer issued to women, revoking their right to drive, and women are not allowed to travel without a male close relative as a chaperone.

  • Thousands of women have lost their jobs as a result of new decrees. The Taliban has ordered the closure of all beauty salons, public bathrooms, and sports centres for women, and fired 80 per cent of female journalists.

  • Major funding for The Sehatmandi programme- the backbone of Afghanistan’s health system- has been withdrawn. Without this funding, the health care system is crumbling leaving the already high maternal mortality rates to increase four-fold. This comes at a time when the Taliban bans chemists from selling contraception.

Though the new government has been labelled as the Taliban 2.0 by some, a comparison of today’s policies with those implemented from 1996-2001, shows approximately 70 per cent are the same, leading researchers to conclude that the Taliban has reverted to the same oppressive practices they used more than two decades ago.

We cannot forget that, as noted in the previous article in this series, Afghanistan is a heavily patriarchal society. Men are considered the head of the family, chief earners, and in charge of all financial matters. This brings us to a less-considered element of this crisis: what about single women, widows, and separated women? Under the previous government, provisions were made to provide for families of military veterans or those killed in the fighting. Now, single women and widows have practically no way of earning money for food, shelter, water, fuel, and warmth that contribute to survival, especially in bitterly cold temperatures.

This issue is further compounded by the December 2022 edict banning women from working for non-governmental organisations, including relief agencies. This caused many NGOs to suspend all Afghanistan operations, having devastating consequences for women, as female workers are the only ones who are able to work with women and their children.

The international community has condemned the Taliban’s policies toward women, with statements coming from the United Nations, Amnesty International, and the European Union, among others. However, The US government has also been criticised for their ‘complacent and haphazard’ removal of troops- despite warnings against their swift withdrawal, and concerns that the removal of troops could spark fresh conflict. The UN has launched a massive humanitarian appeal, attempting to secure $4.6 billion in funds to support Afghan society. However, some have claimed that Western policy is “distracted by other crises”, raising questions about if calls for Afghanistan aid will be answered.

Leaving aside the question of who created this crisis, it is women, minorities, and the poor suffering the worst consequences. Since their takeover, the Taliban has caused over half of all media outlets to shut down, including 132 radio stations, 52 TV stations and 49 online media outlets. Alongside reduced aid in the country, the lack of media coverage raises questions about the true extent of the Taliban regime and its impact on women.

According to the World Economic Forum, between 2021 and 2022 the overall global gender gap slightly narrowed. However, In 2023, Afghanistan is among the most challenging places in the world to be a woman. In a twist of irony, International Women’s Day remains a public holiday in Afghanistan.

In this short series, we explored the evolution and conflict in women’s rights in Afghanistan, looking at both historical and contemporary developments. Together, these articles demonstrate that the fight for gender equality is complex. Despite the growing number of sanctions, women continue to find ways to push back against their oppression.

As this series draws to a close, Afghan community worker ​​Najiba leaves us with a powerful sentiment to consider in light of last week's International Women’s Day:

“We need to continue helping women and girls around us to keep learning—it is the only way to learn, to heal, to be healthy, to hope as they continue their journey on this bumpy road. The power to brighten our dark days lies in each and every one of us.”


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