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Afghanistan: Women Still Not "Liberated"

Police Abuse, Forced Chastity Tests, and Taliban-Era Restrictions in Herat

(New York) - Afghan women and girls have suffered mounting abuses, harassment and restrictions of their fundamental human rights during 2002, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 52-page report, "We Want to Live As Humans": Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan, focuses on the increasingly harsh restrictions on women and girls imposed by Ismail Khan, a local governor in the west of Afghanistan who has received military and financial assistance from the United States. Human Rights Watch said that the situation in Herat was symptomatic of developments across the country, and that women and girls were facing new restrictions in several other regions as well.

"Many people outside the country believe that Afghan women and girls have had their rights restored. It's just not true," said Zama Coursen-Neff, the co-author of the report and counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "Women and girls are still being abused, harassed, and threatened all over Afghanistan, often by government troops and officials."

Human Rights Watch found that women's and girls' rights in Herat had improved since the fall of the Taliban, noting that many women and girls have been allowed to return to school and university, and to some jobs. But the report found that these advances were tempered by growing government repression of social and political life. Ismail Khan has censored women's groups, intimidated outspoken women leaders, and sidelined women from his administration in Herat. Restrictions on the right to work mean that many women will never be able to use their education.

The Human Rights Watch report said that the Herat government has even recruited schoolboys to spy on girls and women and report on so-called un-Islamic behavior.

In some instances, police under Ismail Khan's command have questioned women and girls seen alone with men, even taxi drivers, and arrested those who are not related. Human Rights Watch said that men caught in such circumstances are usually taken to jail; women are brought to a hospital, where police force doctors to conduct medical exams on the women to determine whether they have had recent sexual intercourse, or if unmarried, whether they are virgins.

"Ismail Khan has created an atmosphere in which government officials and private individuals believe they have the right to police every aspect of women's and girls' lives: how they dress, how they get around town, what they say," said Coursen-Neff. "Women and girls in Herat expected and deserved more when the Taliban were overthrown."

Human Rights Watch said that problems for women and girls were growing worse in many parts of the country outside of the capital, Kabul. Throughout 2002, girls' schools in at least five different provinces have been set on fire or destroyed by rocket attacks.

Human Rights Watch said that reports from around the country indicate that government troops and officials regularly target women and girls for abuse, often invoking vague edicts on dress and social behavior. In many areas, local police and troops are enforcing Taliban-era restrictions, including banning music and forcing women and adolescent girls to continue wearing burqas.

Human Rights Watch said that many of these local forces have received weapons and assistance from the United States and other countries during 2002. Human Rights Watch called on all countries involved in Afghanistan to cease military assistance to local commanders and to coordinate all future aid through Kabul's central government.

Human Rights Watch urged the Afghan Transitional Administration in Kabul to prohibit harassment and abuse targeted at women, and to appoint new civilian governors in provinces in which serious abuses against women and girls are occurring. Human Rights Watch also called on the international community to support the Afghan government in these efforts. It urged international donors to support the work of Afghan women, inside and outside of the government, for example, by supporting women's groups throughout the country.

Human Rights Watch called on the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to expand human rights monitoring efforts and to continue efforts to strengthen the Afghan Human Rights Commission, in order to help protect all Afghans seeking to speak openly and challenge abusers.

Noting that efforts to improve security and human rights protection would require an increased presence of international peacekeepers, Human Rights Watch urged the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands to lead efforts to expand international peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, which are currently stationed only in the Kabul area. Germany and the Netherlands will take joint command of the peacekeeping forces in early 2003. Human Rights Watch urged the United States, European Union nations, and NATO, as well as Pakistan, Iran, and other countries bordering Afghanistan to contribute logistical and intelligence support necessary for international peacekeeping to expand.

"The U.S.-led coalition justified the war against the Taliban in part by promising that it would liberate Afghanistan's women and girls," said Coursen-Neff. "In fact, by supporting repressive warlords, the international community has broken that promise and forsaken women's rights."

The Human Rights Watch report is the second of two reports on Herat. In November, Human Rights Watch released a 51-page report, "All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan," documenting abuses by Ismail Khan's forces against political opponents, detainees and ethnic minorities.

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