The extreme violence and discrimination against women under the Taliban, the authorities currently ruling most of Afghanistan, follows years of deteriorating conditions for women. Successive regimes have imposed severe restrictions on women's rights, while warring factions have targeted women for gender-specific violence, such as rape and forced marriage, because they are women and/or because they belong to a certain ethnic group.
In the years following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, women experienced gender-specific violence and discrimination as armed groups struggled for territorial control. The parties that had fought the Soviet-backed government divided up the country while battling with each other to control the capital, Kabul. The United Front forces, a coalition of mainly Tajik, Uzbek, and ethnic Hazara1 parties, were part of this conflict. During this time the rule of law was virtually non-existent in Kabul and large parts of the countryside, and three of the main factions of this coalition engaged in rape, summary executions, arbitrary arrest, torture, and "disappearances."2
During the short-lived and nominal rule of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, from 1992-1996, Kabul experienced full-scale civil war, with indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas causing heavy casualties and destruction. As Human Rights Watch documented, a number of the United Front's factions were responsible for perpetrating widespread rape during fighting in Kabul neighborhoods in 1993 and 1995.3 In 1995, for example, a predominantly Tajik party, Jamiat-i Islami, a faction led by Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud and President Rabbani, conducted a punitive raid on a Hazara neighborhood of Kabul. Similarly, in instances documented by Human Rights Watch in 1998, violence against women was carried out by various warring factions, and in particular by the Taliban, as a means to punish and terrorize their perceived opponents.4
The Taliban, which began as a religious movement of students educated in traditional Islamic schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, emerged as a military force in 1994. The Taliban draws its support primarily from the country's largest and historically dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns.5 Concentrated in the eastern and southern areas of Afghanistan, the Pashtuns are, like their neighbors in Pakistan, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims.
With the extensive assistance of Pakistan, the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, and under its leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, declared itself the government of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." However, only three states (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) recognized it. The latter two have withdrawn recognition since the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Taliban decrees6 have greatly restricted women's movement, behavior, and dress, and in fact, virtually all aspects of their lives.7 In public, women are required under threat of severe punishment to wear the chadari,8 and to be accompanied by a close male relative at all times. Violations of the dress code, in particular, can result in public beatings and lashing by the Religious Police, who wield leather batons reinforced with metal studs.9 Women are not permitted to work outside the home except in the area of health care, and girls over eight years old10 are not permitted to attend school.11 According to reports on Afghanistan by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women, these decrees are generally more strictly enforced in urban areas, and are especially targeted against educated women who, before the Taliban took power, accounted for 70 percent of all teachers, about 50 percent of civil servants, and 40 percent of medical doctors in the country.12
These decrees have had a significant negative impact on women's lives. The rate of illiteracy among girls in Afghanistan is now over 90 percent.13 The restriction on women's mobility has meant that women do not enjoy satisfactory access to health care.14 As a result, an estimated forty-five women die everyday from pregnancy-related causes.15
Widows, whose numbers after twenty-three years16 of war are significant,17 are acutely affected by the restrictions on women's employment and movement. Although the Taliban issued an edict in 1999 allowing widows with no other means of support to take paid work, employment opportunities remain extremely limited.18 International aid agencies, including U.N. bodies, have provided work for some women. However, in July 2000 the Taliban issued a decree banning all Afghan women from working in aid agencies except for those in the health care sector.19 The Taliban has also allowed HABITAT, a U.N. agency, to employ over 3,000 women in pasta processing centers in several urban areas.20 The general restrictions placed on women's employment have reportedly caused an increase in women begging on the streets and participating in prostitution.21
After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, the opposing groups formed an alliance called the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, commonly known as the United Front. The United Front supports the Faizabad-based government headed by President Burhanuddin Rabbani, known as the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA). However, the most powerful figure within the ISA was its defense minister, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated on September 9, 2001. The membership of the United Front has varied over time, but all of its current major factions previously committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including rape of women.22 However, in some areas under United Front control, such as in Mazar-i-Sharif,23 women have had access to health care and been permitted to study up to university level.
Treatment of ethnic and religious minorities
Both the Taliban and certain United Front forces have targeted civilian ethnic minorities during their periods of control, and have used widespread rape, forcible displacement, and abduction of minority women as a weapon of war.24 The U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women has cited reports of the Taliban abducting Hazara girls from village and forcing them into marriage with Pashtun tribesmen.25 Human Rights Watch's own reporting in 1998 found that when the Taliban captured the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northwest Afghanistan, their forces systematically targeted members of the Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek ethnic communities, including by committing sexual assaults against women. Consistent reports indicated that the Taliban abducted a number of young women from various neighborhoods of Mazar-i-Sharif, whose whereabouts remain unknown.26
Out of an estimated twenty two million27 Afghans, most of those who depend on international assistance for their survival are women and children. The withdrawal of international aid workers and the disruption of food shipments are likely to have a devastating effect, especially on widows who are the sole providers for their families. Since the September 11 attacks, tens of thousands of Afghans have continued to flee Afghanistan, most of them towards Pakistan, but because of official border closures many thousands remain trapped at the border without any access to humanitarian assistance.28
Attacks on humanitarian relief agencies in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan have been increasing since the weekend of September 22, 2001, when the Taliban cut off almost all communication between U.N. field offices inside Afghanistan and the outside world, and seized 1,400 tons of U.N. World Food Program (WFP) food stocks in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.29 Again, on October 16, Taliban soldiers reportedly seized WFP food warehouses in Kabul and Kandahar, taking control of some 7,000 tons of food.30 Human Rights Watch has also received reports of Taliban and other armed elements carrying out widespread attacks on humanitarian workers in the Taliban-controlled cities of Kandahar, Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.31
1 Tajiks constitute 25 percent of the population, Uzbeks are 6 percent, and Hazaras make up 19 percent. Jim Lobe & Abid Aslam, "Self-Determination Regional Conflict Profile: Afghanistan," Foreign Policy in Focus, http://www.fpif.org/selfdetermination/conflicts/afghan.html
2 See Human Rights Watch, "Crisis of Impunity: The Role of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Fueling the Civil War in Afghanistan," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. 13, No.3 (C), July 2001, p. 22.
3 See Human Rights Watch, "Crisis of Impunity," p. 22. These three factions were Jamiat-i Islami, Ittihad-i Islami, and the Hizb-i Wahdat.
4 See Human Rights Watch, "The Massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. 10, No. 7 (C), November 1998, p. 12. See also, Human Rights Watch, "Crisis of Impunity," pp. 18-22.
5 Pashtuns presently constitute 38 percent of the population. See Lobe and Aslam, "Self-Determination Regional Conflict Profile: Afghanistan," Foreign Policy in Focus, http://www.fpif.org/selfdetermination/conflicts/afghan.html
7 During Human Rights Watch's August mission to Pakistan, we interviewed Afghan female refugees who had lived in areas controlled by other mujahidin factions, such as Hizb-i Wahdat and the Uzbek forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. These women reported political pressures on women, including pressure to veil. These women described a general atmosphere of insecurity compelling them to stay at home. In some cases, women who did not wear the chadari felt it was safer to do so in order not to be seen and thus avoid abduction or forced marriage. Human Rights Watch interviews, Gul Nawaz, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 26, 2001; Abdullah Hafiz, Peshawar, August 27, 2001; Kobra Khalid, Akora Khattak Camp, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 30, 2001; Mahan Sardori, Akora Khattak Camp, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 30, 3001; Ayesha Gul, Quetta, Pakistan, September 3, 2001; and Sara Ahmed, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 25, 2001. All names of interviewees have been changed to pseudonyms to protect their privacy and to prevent retaliation. See also U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, "Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, submitted by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in accordance with Commission resolution 1997/4," E/CN.4/2000/68/, March 13, 2000, pp. 7-10.
8 For the purposes of this report a few terms will be used: "chadari" is the word most women we interviewed used to describe the head-to-toe garment they were required to wear that obscures their features and hides their bodies. A burqa is a similar garment. The refugee women Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report used the latter two words interchangeably. A "chadar" is a shawl that may be worn loosely over the head.
9 The Taliban also closely police the appearance of men, for example, by punishing them if their beards are not long enough or if they are not wearing a proper headdress. However, most men do retain some control over their lives. They can participate in the public sphere, be politically active, associate freely, and work.
10 Physicians for Human Rights, Women's Health and Human Rights in Afghanistan, May 17, 2001, p. 67. See also U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, "Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, submitted by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in accordance with Commission resolution 1997/4," E/CN.4/2000/68/, March 13, 2000, p. 7. According to a recent Taliban edict, aid agencies may only provide primary education to girls within the confines of a mosque.
11 However, there has been an exception to the edict banning education for girls beyond primary level in the medical profession. A limited number of women have been allowed to study for a medical degree, although Afghan education specialists questioned the standard of teaching and resources available. Human Rights Watch interviews, Dr. Fauzia Akram, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 23, 2001 and Dr. Soraya Anwar, Peshawar, Pakistan, September 6, 2001. All names of interviewees have been changed to pseudonyms to protect their privacy and to prevent retaliation.
12 See U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, "Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, submitted by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in accordance with Commission resolution 1997/4," E/CN.4/2000/68/, March 13, 2000, p. 7. See also, U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Committee of Human Rights, "Final Report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan submitted by Mr. Choong-Hyun Paik, Special Rapporteur, in accordance with Commission resolution 1996/75" E/CN.4/1997/59, February 20, 1997, para. 71.
13 UNESCO estimates that as few as 3 percent of Afghan girls may be receiving some form of primary education. See U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, "Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Any Part of the World: Report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan submitted by Mr. Kamal Hossain, Special Rapporteur, in accordance with Commission resolution 1999/9," E/CN.4/2001/43, March 9, 2001, para. 46.
14 When the Taliban initially came to power, they banned female health care workers and designated a substandard hospital without sanitation for women. Several hospitals now have women's wards and female health care workers and nurses are being trained. These wards and hospitals run on limited resources - in some cases even water and electricity are scanty. See Coomaraswamy, Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, p. 8.
15 WHO Afghanistan paper cited in the report of Kamal Hossain, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Any Part of the World, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, para. 45.
16 The Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
17 There are an estimated 40,000 widows in Kabul alone. Human Rights Watch interview with an international humanitarian organization with experience in Afghanistan, August 27, 2001.
18 Coomaraswamy, Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, p. 9.
19 Hossain, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, paras. 50-51.
20 See "Afghanistan: Pasta Project Employs Hundreds of Women," Integrated Regional Information Network, July 6, 2001. At the time this report went to press in late October, there was no confirmation on how many of these centers were still operational.
21 Coomaraswamy, Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, p. 9.
22 Human Rights Watch, "Military Assistance to the Afghan Opposition," October 5, 2001, p. 3.
23 See also U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, "Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, submitted by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in accordance with Commission resolution 1997/4," E/CN.4/2000/68/, March 13, 2000, p. 9.
24 Human Rights Watch, "Crisis of Impunity," pp. 20-22.
25 Coomaraswamy, Mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, p. 10.
26 See Human Rights Watch, "The Massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. 10, No. 7 (C), November 1998, p. 12.
27 The total population of Afghanistan is estimated to be 27 million people, including the four million who are refugees in neighboring countries, and the one million that are internally displaced within Afghanistan. See the World Bank Group, World Development Indicators database, April 2001. See also, United Nations Appeals, 2001 Appeal for Afghanistan, "To Support an Inter-Agency Emergency Humanitarian Assistance Plan for Afghans in Afghanistan and in Neighboring Countries," September 27, 2001, http://www.reliefweb.int/appeals/afg/2001/index.html
28 See Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Refugee Crisis: Global Backlash Against Refugees and Migrants," press release, October 18, 2001. See also, Human Rights Watch, "No Safe Refuge: The Impact of the September 11 Attacks on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants in the Afghanistan Region and Worldwide," backgrounder, October 18, 2001.
29 See "Afghanistan: WFP to Resume Food Shipments to North and West," Integrated Regional Information Network, September 26, 2001.
30 See Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Attacks on Aid Increasing," press release, October 18, 2001.