© Kiana Hayeri / Amnesty International © Kiana Hayeri / Amnesty International

Death in Slow Motion: Women and Girls Under Taliban Rule

In less than a year, the Taliban have decimated the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. Soon after they took control of the country’s government, the Taliban said they were committed to upholding the rights of women and girls. Yet they have violated women’s and girls’ rights to education, work and free movement; demolished the system of protection and support for women and girls fleeing domestic violence; arbitrarily detained women and girls for infractions of the Taliban’s discriminatory rules; and contributed to a surge in the rates of child, early and forced marriage in Afghanistan. Women who peacefully protested against these restrictions and policies have been harassed, threatened, arrested, forcibly disappeared, detained and tortured.

For women in Afghanistan, it’s death in slow motion.

Adila, journalist 

The scope, magnitude and severity of the Taliban’s violations against women and girls are increasing month by month. Within a year of its takeover of Afghanistan, the group’s draconian policies are depriving millions of women and girls of the opportunity to lead safe, free and fulfilling lives. They are being sentenced, as one Afghan woman put it, to death in slow motion. This death sentence for Afghan women and girls can only be lifted by major and wide-ranging policy changes by Taliban. The international community must urgently develop and implement a robust, coordinated and effective strategy that pressures the Taliban to bring about these changes.  

An Afghan woman poses for a portrait in her home.
Afghan women pose for a portrait. © Kiana Hayeri / Amnesty International

Amnesty International conducted research on the situation of women and girls under Taliban rule from September 2021 to June 2022, interviewing a total of 90 Afghan women and 11 girls. The ages of these women and girls ranged from 14 to 74 years old, and they lived in 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Amnesty International also interviewed six current or former staff members of Taliban-run detention centres; 22 staff members of national and international NGOs and UN agencies and mechanisms; and 10 Afghan and international experts and journalists. The research was conducted through in-person interviews in Afghanistan from 4 to 20 March 2022, as well as through remote interviews.

This report describes a web of interrelated restrictions and prohibitions in which Afghan women and girls are trapped. It shows how the Taliban’s violation of any single right can have pernicious implications for the exercise of other rights. Cumulatively, Taliban policies form a system of repression that discriminates against women and girls in Afghanistan in almost every aspect of their lives.

On 1 July 2022, Amnesty International communicated the key findings detailed in this report in letters addressed to Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi and Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Abdul Wali. No response had been received as of 15 July 2022, when the report was finalized.

Taliban Restrictions on Women and Girls 

Since their takeover, the Taliban have issued a series of policies, decrees and guidelines that violate the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, including those related to education, work, free movement and clothing.

In the area of education, the Taliban have prevented the vast majority of girls at the secondary level from returning to school. The Taliban called girls at the secondary level to return to school on 23 March 2022, only to send them home the same day, citing a “technical issue” related to their uniforms. Fatima, a 25-year-old high school teacher based in Nangarhar province, summarized the feelings of her students: “These young girls just wanted to have a future, and now they don’t see any future ahead of them… There are millions of Afghan girls waiting for action.”

At the university level, the Taliban’s harassment of female students as well as restrictions on students’ behaviour, dress and opportunities have contributed to an unsafe environment where female students are systematically disadvantaged compared to male students. As a result, many female students have either stopped attending or decided not to enrol in university. Other challenges affect girls’ and women’s access to education at all levels, including restrictions on their movement, teacher shortages and students’ lack of motivation due to limited career options under the Taliban.

Interview extract

The Taliban have prevented women across Afghanistan from working. Most female government employees have been told to stay at home, with the exception those working in certain sectors such as health and education. In the private sector, many women have been dismissed from high-level positions. The Taliban’s policy appears to be that they will allow only women who cannot be replaced by men to keep working. Women who have continued working told Amnesty International that they are finding it extremely difficult in the face of Taliban restrictions on their clothing and behaviour, such as the requirement for female doctors to avoid treating male patients or interacting with male colleagues.

Taliban restrictions on work have created a desperate situation for many women who were their families’ sole or primary wage-earner. For instance, Farida, an office worker, said: “When Nangarhar collapsed, the office was closed down… because men and women can’t work together… [My family] spent two weeks without food in our household. Previously, I couldn’t even think that we wouldn’t have food on the table.”

An Afghan woman poses for a portrait in her home.
An Afghan woman poses for a portrait in her home. © Kiana Hayeri / Amnesty International

Taliban restrictions on women’s and girls’ freedom of movement have become increasingly repressive. Initially, they ordered women and girls to be accompanied by a mahram, or male chaperone, for long- distance journeys. Most recently, they decreed that women should not leave their homes unless necessary. Women and girls told Amnesty International that in light of the numerous and evolving restrictions on their movement, any appearance in public without a mahram carried serious risks. They also said that the mahram requirements made their daily lives almost impossible to manage.

The Taliban have enforced increasingly strict guidelines on permissible clothing for women and girls. On 7 May 2022, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue issued a decree requiring women to cover themselves from
head to toe. Male family members were made responsible for women’s adherence to the new rules, and can be detained if women and girls in the family refuse to comply. Zainab, a 27-year-old woman based in Daikundi province, shared her reaction to the decree: “Why would we cover our faces and hide who we are?… I have worn a [head scarf] all my life, but I do not want to cover my face… I can’t breathe now that I’m trying to talk about covering my face.”

Gender-Based Violence  

Before August 2021, women and girl survivors of gender-based violence had access to a nationwide network of shelters and services, including legal representation, medical care and psychosocial support. Specialized prosecution units and courts dealt with cases involving violence against women and girls. While the system had its limitations, it served thousands of women and girls each year. As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, this system collapsed. Shelters were closed, and many were looted and appropriated by members of the Taliban. In some cases, Taliban members harassed or threatened staff. As shelters closed, staff were forced to send many women and girl survivors back to their families. Other survivors were forced to live with shelter staff members, on the street or in other unsustainable situations. Incomprehensibly, as the Taliban advanced across the country, they also systematically released detainees from prisons, many of whom had been convicted of gender-based violence offenses. 

Survivors of gender-based violence and the women who worked within the system of protective services are now in grave danger. Meanwhile, women and girls who have fled violence since the Taliban’s takeover have nowhere to turn. Fariha was nine months pregnant when she spoke to Amnesty International. She was desperately seeking a safe place to live after escaping her husband’s abuse. “Before, there was a shelter, and I went to that place,” she said. “They said it’s not running now, and they can’t accept any new cases. There are no options for me now.” 

Arbitrary Detention of Women and Girls for “Moral Corruption” and Fleeing Abuse 

According to four individuals who worked in Taliban-run detention centres, the Taliban have arbitrarily arrested and detained women and girls for violating their discriminatory policies, such as the rules against appearing in public without a mahram or appearing in public with a man who does not qualify as a mahram. Those arrested have usually been charged with the vague and ambiguous “crime” of “moral corruption”. The four prison staff members also told Amnesty International that survivors of gender-based violence who were formerly based in the shelters are now being detained in the same two detention centres in Afghanistan. Women and girls arbitrarily detained due to alleged “moral corruption” or for fleeing abuse have been denied access to legal counsel and subjected to torture and other ill-treatment as well as inhuman conditions in detention.

One university student was detained in 2022 on charges related to the Taliban’s mahram restrictions. She said that soon after her arrest, Taliban members “started giving me electric shocks [with a taser]… on my shoulder, face, neck, everywhere they could… They were calling me a prostitute [and] a bitch… The one holding the gun said, ‘I will kill you, and no one will be able to find your body.’” She said that like all women and girls detained by the Taliban, her detention would stigmatize her for life. “For an Afghan girl, going to prison is no less than death… Once you enter the door, you are labelled, and you cannot erase it.”

Child, Early and Forced Marriage  

According to Amnesty International’s research, corroborated by national and international organizations operating in Afghanistan, local activists and other experts, the rates of child, early and forced marriage in Afghanistan are surging under Taliban rule. This increase is due to several interrelated drivers, many of which are attributable to the actions and policies of the Taliban and its members since they seized control. The most common drivers include the economic and humanitarian crisis; the lack of educational and professional prospects for women and girls; families’ perceived need to protect their daughters from marriage with a Taliban member; families forcing women and girls to marry Taliban members; and Taliban members forcing women and girls to marry them.

Khorsheed, a 35-year-old woman from a central province of Afghanistan, told Amnesty International that as a result of the economic crisis in Afghanistan, she had been forced to marry her 13-year-old daughter to her 30-year-old neighbour in September 2021, in exchange for a “bride price” of 60,000 Afghanis (around US$670). She said that after her daughter’s marriage, she felt relieved. “She won’t be hungry anymore,” Khorsheed said. She said she was considering marrying off her 10-year-old daughter as well, but she was reluctant to do so, as she hoped this daughter might provide for the family in the future. She explained, “She went all the way to fifth grade. I wanted her to study more. She would be able to read and write, and speak English, and earn… I have a hope that this daughter will become something, and she will support the family. Of course, if they don’t open the school, I will have to marry her off.” 

An Afghan woman poses for a portrait in her home.
An Afghan woman poses for a portrait in her home. © Kiana Hayeri / Amnesty International

Peaceful Protesters  

The systemic discrimination imposed by the Taliban has led to a wave of peaceful protests by women and girls across Afghanistan. The Taliban has violated the rights of these women and girls to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and subjected them to harassment and abuse during protests, including beating and electric shocks by tasers.  

On 30 May 2022, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi said, “In the past nine months, not a single woman has been imprisoned in the jails of Afghanistan either due to political opposition or raising voice against the government.” This is not true. Based on interviews with 12 women who were involved in protests after the Taliban’s takeover, five of whom were detained, Amnesty International has found that many women protesters in Afghanistan have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment.  

Interview extract

One woman who participated in several peaceful protests was arrested and detained for 10 days in 2022. She described her treatment during detention: “[The Taliban guards] kept coming to my room and showing me pictures of my family. They kept repeating… ‘We can kill them, all of them, and you won’t be able to do anything… Don’t cry, don’t make a scene. After protesting, you should have expected days like this.’”  

She said that while in detention, she was severely beaten on two occasions. “They locked the door,” she said. “They started screaming at me… [One Taliban member] said, ‘You nasty woman… America isn’t giving us the money because of you bitches’… Then he kicked me. It was so strong that my back was injured, and he kicked my chin too… I still feel the pain in my mouth. It hurts whenever I want to talk.”

Women protesters who were detained by the Taliban said they had inadequate access to food, water, ventilation, sanitary products and medical care. To secure their release, the women were forced to sign “agreements” that they and their family members would neither protest again nor speak publicly about their experiences during detention.

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Action Required  

The Taliban, as the de facto authorities of Afghanistan, must uphold the rights of women and girls to access education, work, and move freely, as well as the right to access support and legal redress after fleeing violence. The Taliban must also immediately cease practices of arbitrary arrest and detention, and protect the right of all people, including women and girls, to protest peacefully. The Taliban is depriving millions of women and girls of rights enshrined in international law, and they must urgently change course.

Our rights are your rights… You must support the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.

Sabira, a journalist

Jamila, the principal of a primary and secondary school, told Amnesty International: “[The world] doesn’t hear or see what is happening to us, because they are not affected themselves. Only if this happened to them would they understand.” The international community must demonstrate to Afghan women and girls that it understands their plight. States and international organizations must send a clear, coordinated and resounding message to the Taliban that their current policies on women and girls will never be accepted and take concrete steps that impose consequences on the Taliban for their conduct. Such steps should include identifying and using forms of leverage that may influence the Taliban without harming the Afghan people, such as targeted sanctions or travel bans applied through a UN Security Council Resolution.

An Afghan woman poses for a portrait in her home.
An Afghan woman poses for a portrait in her home. © Kiana Hayeri / Amnesty International

For their part, donor states must urgently address the humanitarian and economic crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, which they had a role in creating, and which also undermines the rights of women and girls.

Donor states must ease existing financial restrictions on Afghanistan, which are blocking the provision of healthcare, food and other essential services. They must also strengthen systems for the equitable and adequate distribution of urgent financial support and humanitarian aid in consultation with UN agencies, NGOs and humanitarian agencies operating in Afghanistan, local women activists, and organizations supporting other at-risk groups.  

The stakes could not be higher. If the international community fails to act, it will abandon millions of women and girls across Afghanistan and embolden others to undermine the human rights of women and girls around the world. As Sabira, a journalist, said, “Our rights are your rights… You must support the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.