July 13, 2010


We are still under the Taliban and our lives are limited to our house walls… We cannot work. We cannot go out to visit our relatives without our husbands. My daughters cannot go to school… because we were threatened, they left school. What hopes and wishes of leading a normal and peaceful life can I have?
-Fatima N., central province, February 18, 2010
I call upon you again that is my brother, my dear, Talib jan [dear], this is your land. Come back! I will blame you if it is my mistake in some way, but if it is your mistake, I will not blame you.
-President Hamid Karzai, June 2, 2010[1]
Who suffers first from the war? It is the Afghan women. It is the Afghan women who lose their houses, who lose their husbands who bring the food home. That’s why women don’t oppose reintegration and reconciliation, because if that will bring peace then why not? But if the government is going to do reintegration and reconciliation overnight… then of course things will get worse for Afghan women.
-Samira Hamidi, executive director, Afghan Women’s Network, Kabul, February 14, 2010  


For Afghan women these are anxious times, caught between war and the prospect of a foreboding peace. Women and girls are paying a heavy price in the conflict areas of Afghanistan: killed and wounded by insurgents and airstrikes; local codes of honor violated by intrusive “night raids” by international soldiers; their movement sharply hindered by insecurity; and for many the loss of their families’ breadwinners. Insurgents regularly deny Afghan girls the right to education via attacks on schools and threats against teachers or students. They deny women the right to pursue their own livelihoods, attacking or threatening women working outside of the home.

Afghan women want an end to the conflict. But as the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban draws closer, many women fear that they may also pay a heavy price for peace. Reconciliation with the Taliban, a group synonymous with misogynous policies and the violent repression of women, raises serious concerns about the possible erosion of recently gained rights and freedoms. The prospect of deals with Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin), which is also known for its repressive attitudes towards women, involves similar concerns. Attempts by some promoting negotiations to redefine the insurgency as primarily “non-ideological,” which ignores the experiences of women living in Taliban-controlled areas, have exacerbated these anxieties.

Nine years after the military overthrow of the Taliban government, the government of Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai is promoting negotiations with the Taliban leaders and other insurgent factions. Facing a conflict with no end in sight, an Afghan public increasingly disaffected by thousands of civilian casualties, and pressure for an exit strategy from troop-contributing countries, the government and its international allies increasingly agree on the need for a negotiated settlement. The Afghan government won support at the international conference on Afghanistan in London (the “London Conference”) in January 2010 for the reintegration into society of opposition fighters through internationally funded programs. In June 2010 the Afghan government staged a Consultative Peace Jirga (assembly), which gave it a modest mandate to begin reconciliation efforts (the jirga was boycotted by some opposition politicians and by the Taliban). In July 2010 the Kabul Conference will continue the themes of the London Conference, including more detailed commitments by donors to support programs to reintegrate combatants.

This report describes continuing abuses of women’s rights by the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) in areas under their control over the past several years. It also highlights the concerns of Afghan women about possible deals with the Taliban and other insurgent groups under the rubric of “reintegration” (programs to encourage lower-level fighters to stop fighting) and “reconciliation” (peace negotiations with insurgent commanders) and offers recommendations on what such initiatives should include to protect women’s rights.

For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed a selection of working women and women in public life living in areas that the insurgents effectively controlled or where they have a significant presence to illustrate the current nature of the insurgency. Women and girls in many of these areas have found that some of the oppression of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 has returned. While these tend to be areas already socially and religiously conservative, the narratives of the women interviewed show how severely insurgent factions impact their lives. After the fall of the Taliban, many found that basic rights long repressed had been restored. They resumed their jobs, sent their daughters to school, voted, and some even went into local politics. Since the resurgence of Taliban and other militant groups took root, from 2005-2006 onwards, women’s rights came quickly under attack again.

Many of the women we spoke to had received threatening phone calls and letters. Some had to take their daughters out of school. Many have felt forced to stop work and reduce their movements.

For instance, Asma A. taught in a girls school in a southern province, until she received a threatening letter from the Taliban, which stated:

We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter.  

Freshta S. from a south eastern province, told us: 

In my village the Taliban distributed ‘night letters’ [letters with threats or warnings] and warned that women cannot go out and work. If they go to work then they will be killed. This scared me and my family, and since then I have spent all my days at home.

Violent attacks by the Taliban against women, particularly those who work, are commonplace. For example, on April 13, 2010, an unidentified assailant shot a young aid worker, Hossai, in Kandahar, who died from her wounds. In the weeks preceding her death she had received threatening phone calls from someone saying he was with the Taliban, warning her to leave her job. Days later, another woman working with an international nongovernmental organization received a letter telling her that her name was on the same list, and she would be killed next unless she stopped working with “infidels.” While men associated with the government are also subject to Taliban attack, women face additional risks.

In the last several years several prominent women in Afghan public life have been murdered, including provincial councilor and peace activist Sitara Achakzai, senior police commander Malalai Kakar, outspoken journalist Zakia Zaki, and women’s affairs director Safia Amajan. Their killers have not been brought to justice. This impunity emboldens those responsible and greatly adds to the risks and fears faced by activist women.

Women who speak up for their rights, including female members of Parliament, regularly come under threat. These threats may be greater for those who articulate their fears about the political reemergence of the Taliban, whose leaders are accustomed to threatening and killing those who criticize or oppose them. Some fear that violence and threats directed against women are likely to increase should Taliban or other insurgent commanders hostile to women’s rights be brought into government. According to one leading women’s rights activist:

I think it will mean loss of life for women, not just more pressure. Once the Taliban come to power they will find ways to assert their position and their ways of thinking on the people. For them, activists like us are the biggest problem, we shouldn’t be here-for them we are the problem.

All of the women interviewed for this report supported a negotiated end to the conflict. But they also expressed the view that if the Taliban gain a share of national power or formally govern whole districts or provinces as part of a peace agreement, the consequences for women’s rights could be dire.

Afghan women assert their rights in what is already a deeply hostile political environment. Any assessment of women’s rights, and indeed the prospects for long-term peace and reconciliation needs to be made in the context of the very traditional and often misogynistic male leadership that dominates Afghan politics. The Afghan government, often with the tacit approval of key foreign governments and inter-governmental bodies, has empowered current and former warlords, providing official positions to some and effective immunity from prosecution for serious crimes to the rest. Backroom deals with abusive commanders have created powerful factions in the government and Parliament that are opposed to many of the rights and freedoms that women now enjoy. As one activist told us, “We women don’t have guns and poppies and we are not warlords, therefore we are not in the decision-making processes.”

Concerns that the outcome of reintegration and reconciliation might adversely affect women stem partly from a lack of confidence that the Afghan government will actively protect women’s rights. The Karzai government has a track record of sacrificing rights to appease hard line religious factions for political expediency, such as when President Karzai signed the discriminatory Shia Personal Status Law (which denied numerous rights of Shia women, including child custody and freedom of movement), in March 2009 and provided presidential pardons for two convicted gang rapists.

The government has given little reassurance to women who are concerned about the risks of reintegration and reconciliation. In April 2010, the Minister of Economy, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, a prominent Hezb-i-Islami leader, reportedly told a gathering of women leaders discussing reconciliation that women would have to sacrifice their interests for the sake of peace.

For the most part, government officials offer the weak promise that only those who are not connected to al Qaeda, renounce violence, and agree to abide by the Afghan constitution will be allowed to reintegrate or join the reconciliation process. Article 22 of the constitution enshrines the equality of men and women. However, the constitution is not a sufficient guarantee as it is routinely ignored and violated, and there are very limited legal avenues for redress. Passage of the Shia Personal Status Law, which on its face violates women’s constitutional rights to equality, was a stark example of this. Said one activist, “[The Constitution] doesn’t reassure me. The Taliban don’t respect the constitution… The Taliban operate on an ideology and their ideology is against women’s rights.”

It is essential that the Afghan government commit to prioritizing the protection of women’s human rights in any negotiations, including the rights to education, work, health care, access to justice, and participation in political life. These represent “non-negotiables” that should be agreed to by anyone who seeks reconciliation with the government.

The full participation of women leaders at the negotiating table will help to ensure that these rights are not traded away. Indeed, one of the best guarantees against the erosion of women’s rights is the inclusion of women at all levels of government and a high level of participation in reintegration and reconciliation plans. Through strenuous advocacy efforts, women activists substantially increased their levels of representation–initially promised less than 10 percent, women eventually accounted for 20 percent of the June 2010 Consultative Peace Jirga. Several prominent women’s rights activists felt that they were deliberately excluded from the jirga, and female delegates were still underrepresented in leadership levels, including the appointment of only one woman out of 28 committee heads of that assembly.  One woman participant told Human Rights Watch: “It was difficult to sit face to face with some of these very fundamentalist people, warlords, religious scholars, and talk about women’s rights. But there were 10 or 12 of us women in each of the committees, so we did, and we are still here. This was a big change.”[2] President Karzai and several other senior (male) politicians spoke of the need for women’s inclusion.

However, the final resolution gave no guarantees that women will be included in significant numbers and at decision-making levels in the implementing bodies for either reintegration or reconciliation, such as the High Level Peace Council or the Joint Secretariat for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration Programs. Nor do women have much representation in the government departments and ministries where the most significant decisions are being made. Unless this imbalance is addressed, the risk of their rights being sold short is very real.

Despite promises from Afghanistan’s international supporters to promote women’s rights, there is reason to fear that they, too, may be prepared to sacrifice women’s rights in the search for an exit strategy from Afghanistan. While US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been applauded by some women’s rights activists for consistently highlighting the situation of Afghan women, President Barack Obama’s failure to mention women’s rights in his December 2009 policy speech on Afghanistan sent a worrying signal to Afghan women.  

Domestic audiences in countries including the United States, Canada and United Kingdom whose troops have suffered considerable casualties during many years of fighting may not easily accept the shift from talk of defeating the Taliban to endorsing reconciliation with the Taliban leadership. In order to sweeten this bitter pill, military and civilian officials from these governments are now keen to stress what is portrayed as the non-ideological nature of the insurgency. Reintegrating the so-called “ten-dollar Taliban,” those “moderate,” “pragmatic,” or “non-ideologically motivated” foot soldiers who fight for money or other economic benefit rather than religious or ideological reasons, dominates the discussion. Said the head of the International Security Assistance Forces’ reintegration unit, Lt. General Graeme Lamb: “Who are these Taliban? They are local people, the vast majority are guns for hire, not fighting for some ideological reason.”

While poverty and local grievances do help fuel the insurgency, this perspective tends to downplay or disregard the long history of discrimination, abuse and atrocity by the Taliban, and women’s continuing suffering at the hands of insurgent groups.


The Afghan government is already undermined by the entrenched power of former warlords and gangster oligarchs. This situation reflects years of deal making made in the name of stability and security for which both the government and its international supporters bear responsibility. Reconciliation with the Taliban and other insurgent groups may sadly follow the same pattern of short-term thinking at the expense of women’s rights. 

In January 2010 it emerged that the Afghan government had brought into force an amnesty law providing immunity from prosecution to combatants who agree to join the reconciliation process. The law violates Afghanistan’s obligations under international law to prosecute all those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights abuses, including sexual crimes of war. This applies to perpetrators of atrocities on all sides, including Taliban and other insurgent leaders. While it is appropriate to grant amnesties to individuals who merely participated in an armed conflict, those who committed serious violations of international law should not be granted amnesty from criminal prosecution as part of the reconciliation process.

Reconciliation need not and should not follow the pattern long practiced in Afghanistan of co-opting factions by placing them above the law: justice and accountability need to at the core of the reconciliation process, including prosecutions of those responsible for serious crimes and stronger vetting of candidates for elected office and political appointments. Impunity underlies many of the worst rights abuses that women and girls face, from the high rates of gender-based violence to attacks on women in public life. Few perpetrators of abuses against women and girls are ever prosecuted: to welcome those perpetrators into the government or grant them amnesty only entrenches impunity. It also risks hardening an already hostile political environment for women. If women are present at the negotiating table, and on the bodies that implement reintegration and reconciliation programs, they stand a chance of being able to protect their rights. 

The government of Afghanistan is under enormous pressure from all sides. The main troop-contributing nations are also under immense domestic pressure to bring their forces home. These pressures should not result in the Afghan people being short-changed in hasty and careless deals that will only result in a rented calm. It will take visionary leadership from both the government and its supporters to ensure that any reintegration and reconciliation process results in a just and inclusive peace that protects the rights of all Afghans, including women and girls. 

Key Recommendations

To the government of Afghanistan:

·         Ensure that women are represented at decision-making levels in all national and regional discussions and decisions about reintegration, negotiation, and reconciliation, including the High Level Peace Council and the Joint Secretariat for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration Programs.

·         Ensure that women are represented in the government’s negotiations with insurgent groups.  

·         Ensure that all those who agree to a reconciliation process have made explicit their acceptance of the constitutional guarantees of equality for men and women, including the right to an education, the right to work, and the right to participate in political life.

·         Repeal the amnesty law, and ensure that those against whom there are credible allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights abuses are excluded from the reconciliation process.

·         Ensure that background checks are carried out on all insurgent commanders considered for reintegration and reconciliation, and that political and bureaucratic positions at the district, provincial, or national level are not offered to those who have a track record of rights abuses, including against women.


To the international military forces in Afghanistan:

·         Ensure that military assistance to reintegration efforts does not exacerbate impunity or corruption, and that any engagement with communities or individuals seeking reintegration or reconciliation involves adequate intelligence and background checks for serious allegations of human rights abuses including attacks on women and girls’ education.

·         Recognize that civilian casualties, night raids, and detention practices have helped fuel the insurgency, and fully investigate and hold accountable military personnel responsible for wrongful acts.

To the UN and international donors:

·         Provide oversight of the reintegration and reconciliation process so that it does not contravene UN Security Council Resolutions including Resolution 1325, which recognizes women’s vital role in achieving peace and security, Resolutions 1820 and 1888 on the prevention and prosecution of sexual violence in armed conflict, and Resolution 1889 which seeks to promote the involvement of women during the post-conflict and reconstruction periods.

·         Urge the inclusion of women leaders and activists in key decision-making and implementation bodies from village to national levels. Speak out publically about the need for reintegration and reconciliation efforts to ensure the protection of women’s rights. 

·         Urge the government to repeal the amnesty law, refrain from endorsing government reconciliation with individuals against whom there are credible allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights abuses, and urge the government to investigate and prosecute these crimes.


This report is based on more than 90 interviews carried out in Afghanistan primarily between January and April 2010. The interviews with women living in districts largely controlled by insurgent groups were either carried out directly by Human Rights Watch researchers or by partners working in the area. The women interviewed were from four provinces in different regions: the south, east, southeast, and center. These interviewees were mostly women who are or had recently been in employment in these areas. Human Rights Watch researchers also carried out a wide range of interviews with women human rights defenders and activists in Kabul, as well as Afghan government officials, foreign military officials, diplomats, and analysts.

Many of the interviews were conducted in Dari or Pashto through the use of interpreters. Because many of the interviewees fear reprisals, we often use pseudonyms, particularly for women living in areas under insurgent control. In some cases other identifying information such as place names has been withheld to protect interviewees’ privacy and safety. Some individuals working in official positions also requested anonymity. Many foreign diplomats and officials gave off-the-record interviews and are not named.

This report builds on Human Rights Watch’s existing work on women’s rights in Afghanistan, including our December 2009 report, “‘We have the Promises of the World’: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan” (http://www.hrw.org/en/node/86805).

[1]Speech by President Hamid Karzai broadcast on Afghanistan National Television, June 2, 2010 (translation provided by email to Human Rights Watch from diplomat in Kabul, June 11, 2010).

[2]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with women’s rights activist, June 10, 2010.