Amnesty: Taliban’s persecution of women could constitute crime against humanity

A new human rights report suggests that extreme restrictions on women’s and girls’ rights as gender-based discrimination and persecution in Afghanistan by the Taliban since their takeover could constitute a crime against humanity under international law.

The report is jointly published by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists on May 26 and offers detailed legal analysis and first-hand accounts of the Taliban’s severe restrictions and a consistent crackdown on women and girls through imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, and other human rights violation.

“Since their take over, the Taliban has imposed draconian restrictions on the rights of Afghanistan’s women and girls. Let there be no doubt: this is a war against women – banned from public life; prevented from accessing education; prohibited from working; barred from moving freely; imprisoned, disappeared, and tortured including for speaking against these policies and resisting the repression. These are international crimes. They are organized, widespread, systematic,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General at Amnesty International.

More importantly, the report, which covers August 2021 to January 2023, draws on over 100 interviews with women and girls across the country, by presenting harrowing accounts of oppression and systematic subjugation to curb their freedoms and virtually erase them from public life.

The report recommends specific actions to a range of stakeholders, including the Taliban authorities, by calling them to respect and exercise the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. The report also emphasizes concerned international organizations, i.e., International Criminal Court, to independently investigate and report human rights abuses and hold the Taliban accountable for crimes under international law.

Severe restrictions imposed

The report’s findings highlight systematic country-wide restrictions on women and girls that is steadily increasing since the Taliban took power, restrictions include freedom of movement and mahram restrictions, how women dress, secondary and university education, work, and employment, among others.

First, women and girls have been disproportionately affected to exercise their basic right to freedom of movement, curtailed by a series of decisions and decrees issued by the Taliban authorities at the local and national levels. This curb disallows women to leave their homes unless necessary and with a male chaperone and requires them to cover their faces in public. Later, additional measures were imposed to restrict women’s access to public parks, gyms, bathhouses, cafes, and driving freedoms. Any disobedience could expose women to intimidation, arrest, and punishment by the Taliban forces.

Second, women and girls have been gradually ordered to wear hijab that covers them from head to toe in public spheres, including public offices, hospitals, schools, universities, and other social premises. In early March 2022, the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue issued a letter to all government entities ordering women government employees to adhere to this dress code or face termination while officials were ordered to not allow women on government premises if they did not have proper hijab. Amnesty International has recorded several instances when women were beaten in public by Taliban agents and not allowed to enter universities and workplaces for abiding by this law.

Third, women and girls are not allowed post-primary and higher education as a result of a series of Taliban decrees and announcements. In late August 2021, the Taliban’s Education Commission announced all schools to be closed, in September when the schools reopened, girls beyond sixth grade were not permitted to attend classes. In January 2022, the Taliban announced that girls could return to secondary school only to reverse their announcement in late March and since then there is an all-out ban on girls’ education beyond primary school.

Moreover, universities were initially restricted to implementing strict gender segregation between women and men university students, such as female students were required to be taught by women professors and women and men attend classes in separate shifts. These limitations substantially curtailed women’s access to universities and restricted female students and instructors to attend classes. In October 2022, certain subjects including journalism, agriculture, and veterinary medicine became inaccessible to female students, and one month later, women’s higher education was banned and universities were ordered not to enroll them, sparking women-led protests across the country. Despite widespread protests and international pressure, this curb remains intact to date.

Fourth, women’s access to employment has been strictly curbed as they are barred from working in NGOs, the public sector, and international organizations such as the UN. Women keeping their jobs were reportedly at risk of abuse by the Taliban members monitoring workplaces. In late December 2022, the Taliban announced an immediate ban across the country to restrict women from working for NGOs, depriving them to earn income and access to employment freedom – women staff working in the health sector were an exception to this rule. Women working in the public sector were ordered to stay at home, with some exceptions, only to be replaced by male employees and women judges, prosecutors, and lawyers were excluded from the justice sector. Most recently, women staff working across UN organizations were banned from employment, prompting the UN to ask their female employees to work from home. This rule, according to the UN, has significantly undermined aid agencies to work in the country amid economic and humanitarian crises. By March 2022, 61 percent of women had lost their jobs, resulting in an economic loss for the country estimated between USD 600 million and USD 1 billion.

Fifth, frustrated with the Taliban’s gradual curbs, women and girls took to the streets on several occasions to resist the Taliban rules across the country. However, these peaceful assemblies and demonstrations were largely restricted, and violently repressed by the Taliban forces which involved numerous cases of unnecessary and excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests and detention of women protesters and their family and relatives. Since mid-2022, the number of public protests and demonstrations declined due to Taliban crackdowns as well as fear of detention and retaliation, leading to women resorting to creative ways of protesting indoors or by relying on social media. Women protestors Amnesty International interviewed described instances of torture, abuses, beatings, and other unlawful treatments and when some were released, they were forced to sign documents promising they would never protest again. Journalists who tried to cover these protests were also arbitrarily arrested, their belongings confiscated, and many were tortured.