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Women in Afghanistan have suffered a catastrophic assault on their human rights during more than twenty years of war and under the repressive rule of the Taliban. Now, as women face further peril with the intensification of conflict following the September 11 attacks on the United States, the international community must make a firm commitment to uphold women's human rights in any post-conflict settlement. The impunity that has characterized Afghanistan's civil war must not also come to characterize Afghanistan's post-conflict reconstruction and development.

Throughout Afghanistan's civil war, the major armed factions - primarily the Taliban and the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (commonly known as the "United Front" or by its previous name, the Northern Alliance), a coalition of mainly Tajik, Uzbek, and ethnic Hazara parties - have repeatedly committed serious abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law. Women have borne the brunt of this violence and discrimination. In the civil war, women have suffered massive, systematic, and unrelenting human rights abuses that have permeated every aspect of their lives. Both Taliban forces and forces now grouped in the United Front have sexually assaulted, abducted, and forcibly married women during the armed conflict, targeting them on the basis of both gender and ethnicity. Thousands of women have been physically assaulted and have had severe restrictions placed on their liberty and fundamental freedoms. Moreover, the Taliban have sought to erase women from public life. They have banned women from employment in most sectors; banned education of girls beyond primary school; forbidden women from going out in public without the accompaniment of a close male relative (mahram); and banned women from appearing in public without wearing an all-enveloping chadari (a head-to-toe garment). These restrictions assault women's human dignity and threaten their very right to life.

The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (al-Amr bi al-Ma'ruf wa al-Nahi `an al-Munkir, hereafter, "Religious Police"), modeled after a similarly named ministry in Saudi Arabia, has ruthlessly enforced Taliban restrictions against women through arbitrary and humiliating public beatings and the threat of public beatings. The Religious Police not only beat women publicly for, among other things, wearing socks that are not opaque enough; showing their wrists, hands, or ankles; and not being accompanied by a close male relative; but also for educating girls in home-based schools, working, and begging.

Having suffered violence and discrimination during Afghanistan's civil war, the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan will impact especially severely on women. Many women who have no close male relative to accompany them will face difficulty fleeing the country; escaping in a chadari is cumbersome and slow. Women remaining behind may be vulnerable to reprisals and abuses, including sexual assault by the factions participating in the war. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimate that in Kabul alone there are 40,000 widows. Having very limited opportunities for employment and having their sons or other close male relatives vulnerable to conscription by the Taliban, these women are perhaps in the most precarious position and are among the least likely to be able to escape the conflict.

Throughout the Afghan civil war, all sides in the conflict have committed egregious and flagrant violations of humanitarian and human rights law, including violations of women's rights, with impunity. There is a danger now that the international community will advocate for a political solution that, while serving their immediate political and security needs, bargains away accountability for the long history of human rights abuses suffered by the citizens of Afghanistan generally, and by Afghan women specifically. Discussion of protection of women's rights during the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan has been largely absent, even though Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have documented previous occasions in which both the Taliban and United Front forces have retaliated against civilians in recaptured areas. Historically, when the Taliban have felt threatened, they have redoubled their persecution of women and groups they perceive as opposed to their rule.

Based on interviews with refugees in Pakistan conducted shortly before the September 11 attacks in the U.S., this report focuses on abuses of women's human rights in Afghanistan. However, as the situation in Afghanistan worsens, and women seek to escape the armed conflict, there will be a continued need for the international community, particularly United Nations (U.N.) agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to respond to the needs of Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons. Women living in the camps in Pakistan expressed to Human Rights Watch their fears that even in Pakistan, their country of refuge, sympathizers with the Taliban may increasingly infiltrate the refugee camps and threaten the human rights of women.

Any political or military solution to the situation in Afghanistan must include clear commitments by the international community to promote and protect women's human rights and fundamental freedoms. The international community must insist on an end to impunity, for accountability for abuses of women's human rights committed during the civil war and for any violations that occur during the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and for full respect and protection for women's human rights as an integral part of any post-conflict reconstruction and development


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