Women living in Afghanistan have suffered massive and systematic violations of their human rights under the Taliban. The Taliban have issued numerous edicts that control literally every aspect of women's behavior in both the public and privates spheres. These edicts are officially issued by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, and announced to the general public through the Taliban radio station, the Voice of Shariat (Islamic law). With a few exceptions, the Taliban have banned women from participating in the public sphere. Women are forbidden to take employment, to appear in public without a male relative, to participate in government or other public debate, and to receive secondary or higher education. The impact of this discrimination has been to silence women and strip them of all control over their lives. Afghan women do not experience these violations as separate and discrete incidents; rather, the discrimination is cumulative and so overwhelming that it is literally life threatening for many Afghan women. Women are deprived of the means to support themselves and their children.
The Taliban enforce their discriminatory edicts through summary and arbitrary punishment of women by the Religious Police. By engaging in widespread discrimination and violence against women, the Taliban are daily violating international human rights law. The current Taliban regime, as well as all future regimes in Afghanistan, is bound by basic principles of international human rights law and, in particular, by the human rights treaties signed and acceded to by Afghanistan.32
These rights violated by the Taliban's discriminatory33 policies include the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, the right to work, the right to education, freedom of movement, and the right to health care.
International law guarantees all persons the right to freedom of expression.34 The Taliban's imposition of extreme types of restrictions on women's freedom cannot be reasonably construed as fitting within any of the exceptions to this right.35
The rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and freedom of movement are guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).36 The Taliban's decrees and practices effectively constitute a prohibition on all association, assembly, and freedom of movement on an indefinite basis.
The right to work is set forth in the UDHR,40 the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),41 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).42 Under these instruments, states are obliged to recognize the right of "everyone to gain his living by work, which he freely chooses or accepts."
The right to education is set forth in the UDHR,43 the ICESCR,44 the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)45 and CEDAW.46 These instruments declare the right to education to be universal. CEDAW specifically obliges states to address the problems faced by women, in particular those in rural areas, in securing enjoyment of this right.47 In particular, states are obligated under the ICESCR and the CRC to provide primary and secondary education to all without discrimination as to sex, and to guarantee equal access to higher education.48
Women's right to equal access to health care services is a critical element of the right to health guaranteed under international law. CEDAW guarantees this right to all women, including women living in rural areas.49 The ICESCR provides equal rights to the "highest attainable standard of physical and mental health."50
In Afghanistan, not only do women face Taliban decrees that are discriminatory, but they are also subjected to summary physical punishment without the protections of due process. Under international law, states are required to prosecute violations of bodily integrity, and to act to protect women from gender-based violence and discrimination. The ICCPR protects women from gender-based violence in its guarantees to the right to life,51 the right not to be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,52 the right to liberty and security,53 and the right to equality before the law, including effective protection against discrimination on the ground of sex.54
32 Afghanistan ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) on January 24, 1983. Afghanistan signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on August 14, 1980 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on September 27, 1990. Afghanistan ratified the CRC on March 28, 1994.
35 Under Article 19(3) of the ICCPR, a state may limit this freedom only insofar as it is necessary for the protection of the rights of others, national security or public order, or public health or morals. These limitations must be expressly provided for by the law and must be strictly construed. "Public morals" is not defined in the ICCPR. The Human Rights Committee has stated, "public morals differ widely. There is no universally applicable common standard. Consequently, in this respect, a certain margin of discretion must be accorded to the responsible national authorities." Although the definition of public morals differs widely, it is the view of Human Rights Watch that it cannot be used to defend the imposition of severe limitations on women's human rights and fundamental freedoms. Views of the Human Rights Committee under Article 5(4) of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights concerning Communication No. R.14/61, para 10.3, Human Rights Committee, in Report of the Human Rights Committee, U.N. General Assembly, 37th sess., U.N. Doc A/37/40, Supp. No.40 (1982), pp. 161-165.
36 Articles 22 and 21. They are also set forth in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly is subject to the same exceptions as the right to freedom of expression.
42 Article 11. Afghanistan signed CEDAW on August 14, 1980. According to Article 11(1)(a) of CEDAW, the right to work is an "inalienable right of all human beings." Article 11(1)(c) guarantees women the right to a free choice of profession and employment.