Women’s rights issue: The litmus test for Taliban government of Afghanistan

Keeping girls away from education comes at a huge psycho-social cost that the nation must bear

Its performance in women’s rights may become the key litmus test for the Taliban government, the de-facto authority in Afghanistan, to procure financial and infrastructural aid from the international community.

How the Taliban government will treat common people particularly women and girls has been a global concern since they took over Afghanistan.

Their human rights record and treatment of women have not been exemplary despite promises in the early days.

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Girls are in despair today having been denied the fundamental right to education due to the Taliban’s ban on girls’ secondary school education.

Afghani women had fought for their rights to education which had transformed their life and outlook. But they had just started enjoying the benefits of it in a slightly more open and liberal society when the more fundamentalist Taliban regime took over.

This new avatar of the Taliban had claimed that they were more liberal and open in their outlook than the earlier hardcore fundamentalist Taliban.

With secondary schools being shut for Afghan girls now, the future lives of a whole generation of girls seem completely dark.

But women in Afghanistan today have many other rights denied to them also like the right to raise their voice and protest, to play sports or music, access to employment, and access to health care, besides the right to political representation.

They do not even have the minimum fundamental human right to leave their home and move around freely.

No wonder women in Afghanistan are facing the most serious women’s rights crisis in the world today.

Platitudes are not going to work now and international bodies like the UN need not only to sit up and take note but come out with concrete plans to improve the situation for women in Afghanistan and implement those plans earnestly.

Despite the Taliban authorities ruling Afghanistan assuring that they were not going to flout human rights, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is not convinced.

According to UNAMA it continuously receives allegations of killings, ill-treatment, and other violations targeting individuals associated with the former Government of Afghanistan and those accused of affiliation with the armed opposition and ISIL-KP (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province).

The UN body rightly feels that greater efforts need to be undertaken to prevent such events by the Taliban government and it must openly demonstrate that the perpetrators of such acts are held accountable. Only such action will go to assuage the sense of fear among the common public.

Increasingly Taliban has restricted all kinds of dissent and exercise of basic human rights, such as freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of opinion and expression.

What is worse is that the target of this kind of stranglehold are Afghan women and girls whose rights and freedoms are being restricted. Their involvement in social, political, and economic life has been curtailed.

These include most prominently the ban on secondary schooling for girls and the decision to impose face covering on women.

The attempt is to push back girls and women into a regressive backward era and not create for them a free, open, liberal social setup with equality among sexes, men, and women.

Keeping girls away from education comes at a huge psycho-social cost that the nation must bear.

The UNAMA report on Human Rights in Afghanistan (Aug.15,2021-August 15.15,2022) covers the period since the Taliban takeover and depicts the striking human rights violations in the country.

Taliban’s action in providing fundamental freedoms and protecting the rights of civilians, rights of women, and girls have been poor, the report shows.

Instances of extrajudicial killings, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, and detention further mar the record of the government.

The report has accepted that though there has been a significant reduction in armed violence during this period there were 2106 civilian casualties (700 killed, 1406 wounded) which is a very high number.

 Most civilian casualties were attributed to targeted attacks by the armed group self-identified “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province” against ethnic and religious minority communities.

It is not that the Taliban authorities have not taken any steps to protect and promote human rights which even the UN acknowledges, but they have not been able to stop the human rights violations.

The Taliban declared amnesty for former Afghanistan government officials and security force members. They had also come out with a decree on women’s rights which said women should not be considered “property” and they have a right to give consent in their marriage.

“A woman is not a property, but a noble and free human being; no one can give her to anyone in exchange for peace…or to end animosity,” the decree said.

It said that women should not be forced into marriage and widows should have a share in their late husband’s property.

The official decree said that courts should consider these rules when making decisions, and religious affairs and information ministries should promote these rights.

But other women’s issues like work or education and greater access to facilities outside were issues on which the Taliban have still to pay attention, even though the international community has been crying hoarse over it.

During its previous rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban had banned women from leaving the house without a male relative and full face and head covering and girls from receiving education.

This time round they claimed to have progressed and changed but it seems that attitudinal change is not that easy to come by.

The Taliban government claims that high schools for girls in some provinces have been allowed to open.

But many women and rights advocates remain skeptical.

With the international community making women’s rights and human rights concerns a key issue for the Taliban to gain access to the billions of frozen funds it urgently requires for the country’s development and economic transformation, the choices for the Taliban are limited.

It is virtually come down to a stark choice between allowing education and participation of women and girls in public life as in any other modern society or facing economic collapse.

The international bodies including the UN are making it clear that they are not willing to provide financial help to a country that is not ready to provide education to its girls and women, considered a basic human right and the key to progress and development of a nation.

The de facto authorities in Afghanistan had announced an amnesty for former government officials and Afghan National Security and Defence Force members. This amnesty does not, however, appear to have been consistently upheld, with UNAMA recording at least 160 extrajudicial killings of former government and security officials during this period by members of the de facto authorities.

Such acts put a question mark on the Taliban regime’s seriousness about the preservation of human rights.

The UN has shown its concern about the impunity with which the human rights violations were carried out. The UNAMA’s report details extrajudicial killings of individuals accused of affiliation with armed groups, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishments and extrajudicial killings of individuals accused of “moral” crimes and the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.

Interestingly it is the “moral” policing and directives of two Taliban Ministries, the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Amr Bil Maruf)  and the Directorate of Intelligence  (Istikhbarat) which the UN body feels restrict the rights of girls and women.

UNAMA’s report details instances where the Directorate of Intelligence was involved in perpetrating human rights violations against individuals in their custody, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill-treatment, as well as arbitrary arrests and detentions.

According to Fiona Frazer, UNAMA Chief of Human Rights, “The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of opinion are not only fundamental freedoms, but they are also necessary for the development and progression of a nation. They allow meaningful debate to flourish, also benefiting those who govern by allowing them to better understand the issues and problems facing the population.”

UNAMA’s report has called on the international community to continue its support for the people of Afghanistan by ensuring that urgent humanitarian and basic needs are met. Further, the international community must ensure that sanctions, while they remain in place, do not hurt human rights.

UNAMA has appreciated the level of engagement to date and remains committed to supporting the de facto authorities in protecting and promoting the human rights of all Afghan women, men, girls, and boys.

As far as figures go the report states that there were, 160 extrajudicial killings, 178 arbitrary arrests, and detentions, 23 instances of incommunicado detention, and 56 instances of torture and ill-treatment of former ANDSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and government officials carried out by the de facto authorities.

There were 59 extrajudicial killings, 22 arbitrary arrests and detentions, and 7 incidents of torture and ill-treatment by the de facto authorities of individuals accused of affiliation with self-identified “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province”, the report said.

There were 18 extrajudicial killings, 54 instances of torture and ill-treatment and 113 instances of arbitrary arrest and detention, and 23 cases of incommunicado detention of individuals accused of affiliation with the self-identified “National Resistance Front”, the report pointed out.

There were 217 instances of cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishments carried out by the de facto authorities since 15 August 2021, and 118 instances of excessive use of force, according to the report.

Journalists and media workers also faced human rights violations with 122 instances of arbitrary arrest and detention, 58 instances of ill-treatment, 33 instances of threats and intimidation, and 12 instances of incommunicado detention, according to the UN report.

 Six journalists were also killed during period five by self-identified Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province, one by an unknown perpetrator, the report added.

The way forward clearly depends upon how far the Taliban regime gives importance to international opinion and human rights norms. How far it is able to see to it that human rights violations do not take place or minimized to the extent possible.

International financial and other aid being directly linked to human rights violation and women’s rights particularly in the field of education can be a great motivating factor for the Taliban government to play a more vigilant and stricter role in checking human rights violation and also providing girls and women their fundamental right of education.  

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