Despite prior assurances that they had moderated their positions, the past year of Taliban rule has been marred by a disturbing rollback of women’s and girl’s basic rights as 20 years of advancements have nearly evaporated. Meanwhile, the current economic crisis has forced young Afghans out of the workforce and left them in dire financial and humanitarian straits. USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi and Matthew Parkes examine how the Taliban’s oppressive policies have affected Afghan women, girls and youth over the last 12 months and offer ways for the United States and international community to support Afghanistan’s next generation.
How have women’s lives changed since the Taliban takeover?
Ahmadi: Since returning to power last year, the Taliban have enforced restrictions on women’s access to education, employment and other economic resources, and severely limited women’s mobility generally. These restrictions have been introduced through official edicts, orders and letters at both the national and local levels.
While the landscape prior to the Taliban takeover was problematic, the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Afghanistan 146 out of 146 for women’s education attainment and economic participation and opportunity.
The Taliban’s methods of enforcement include direct warnings, intimidation, detention and, as applicable, dismissal from government positions. According to a U.N. Women report: “In practice, restrictions on women’s freedom of movement often go beyond what is prescribed in decrees,” due to the culture of fear and intimidation associated with the Taliban.
Almost immediately after taking control of the country, the Taliban ordered women employees of government to stay home. Universities remained closed for several months, and girls in most areas remain unable to attend school beyond sixth grade.
The Taliban’s governmental reorganization included abolishing the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replacing it with the Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was an infamously oppressive ministry during the Taliban’s previous rule in the 1990’s.
The ministry soon ushered in further restrictions on mobility — and access to services like health care — by requiring women to be accompanied by a male blood relative when leaving their home. Women can no longer be issued a driver’s license. And in a development that demonstrates both the Taliban’s ignorance on women’s issues and their inability to effectively govern a modern state, the Taliban ordered women employees at the Ministry of Finance to send a male family member to replace them, regardless of the man’s qualification or education level. Taliban decisions and orders make clear the group sees women as second-class human beings, and they are very willing to try and erase women’s presence in the public square.
What are the social and psychological impacts of the erosion of women’s rights in Afghanistan?
Ahmadi: The Taliban’s behavior and subsequent policies toward women have dire consequences for women’s social status and their lifelong psychological wellbeing. Treatment of women as less of a human being or as a second-class citizen affects how society as a whole — particularly young men and boys — views and treats women at home and in public.
Coupled with Afghanistan’s already patriarchal society, it validates efforts to exert ever-increasing control over women’s mobility, education and professional choices — even their choice of what to wear, access to everyday services and their ability to exercise their fundamental rights.
It harms women’s self-worth, confidence and agency. Enforcers from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue often go in communities, gather people in markets and use radio and television platforms or mosque loudspeakers to call for the public to be their eyes and ears in ensuring women abide by the Taliban’s rules of behavior.
In terms of justice, what mechanisms are there through which women can access justice?
Ahmadi: Prior to August 15, 2021, there were laws, special commissions and family dispute resolution mechanisms that provided some level of protection and support to women. Institutions such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (which had a presence in every province), the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and an ever-growing list of women’s rights groups, special commissions and NGOs have been shut down or banned.
Under the Taliban, women have also been barred from practicing law or serving as a judge, prosecutor or defense lawyer. Of the roughly 300 women judges in Afghanistan prior to the takeover, 244 of them have been evacuated from the country entirely.
The Taliban have eroded mechanisms and services that were in place to provide protection and legal counselling to women. The Taliban made the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association (AIBA) part of the Ministry of Justice. By merging AIBA with the ministry, the Taliban have deprived Afghans, particularly women, of a previously robust mechanism to access independent defense attorneys.
Predictably, the Taliban have replaced experienced judges with their own members — most of whom have no formal legal education. Courts have stopped taking cases that relate to divorce, separation or domestic violence. Many women who had pending divorce cases prior to the Taliban takeover cannot proceed with their cases. In rural areas, most family and property related cases are heard and decided by male elders and Taliban. Unsurprisingly, cases involving women are decided in favor of the male party.
All of this is forcing women victims of domestic violence to suffer their abuse in silence and often isolation. In the absence of female justice actors, combined with the Taliban’s policies that embolden patriarchal norms, women are left with no support and options for navigating the justice sector.
Afghanistan has a very young population, with over 60 percent of its citizens under the age of 25. How has life changed for them over the past year?
Parkes: The rise of a new generation of Afghan scholars, activists and civil servants was one of the greatest achievements of the past 20 years. There was hope that a new era would be ushered in as the old guard of powerbrokers were replaced with educated and reform-minded men and women.
But thousands of Afghans from this generation fled the country due to fear of Taliban persecution and decreasing opportunities. Many of those that remain struggle to find employment and keep a low profile to avoid the Taliban’s oppressive ire. Many from this new generation are experiencing immense trauma, grief and fear — a tragic consequence of the Afghan republic’s rapid collapse and an inherited legacy of long and brutal conflict.
And while there rightfully is significant international media attention on the challenges facing Afghan women and girls, young men have also faced persecution and a decrease in their livelihoods. Many young people of all genders have not had the opportunity to attend school and lack basic literacy, which can leave them more vulnerable to recruitment by the Taliban and other extremist groups due to lack of other viable economic opportunities.
In addition to the ban on secondary education for girls, the ongoing economic crisis has left many Afghan families unable to pay the modest entrance expenses to send any of their kids to school. And while girls are not prohibited from taking university courses, officials warn that the lack of a new generation of high school graduates, coupled with the economic barriers, will soon create a “de facto ban.”
The Taliban have also announced their intentions to reform school curricula at all public schools and universities to promote their interpretation of Sharia and national propaganda, which may decrease the overall quality of the education while possibly indoctrinating impressionable youth with the Taliban’s extremist beliefs. In some areas, they have already begun replacing certain lessons and faculty.
The continued decrease in employment and education opportunities for Afghan youth, coupled with the economic and humanitarian crises, will undoubtedly have drastic negative consequences on the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Some families have resorted to child marriage and labor to keep food on the table.
Given the restrictions on women’s employment and movement, the burden of feeding the family can fall on male children and adolescents. This in turn leads to lost opportunities for them to pursue their education, extracurricular activities and develop their potential.
Extreme malnourishment, which experts predict may remain endemic for the foreseeable future, will cost countless lives, and stunt the physical and mental development of countless more, putting the post-takeover generation at an even greater disadvantage while fueling further displacement throughout the region.
How can the U.S and international community continue to support the next generation of Afghans?
Parkes: The U.S and international community must continue to support educational opportunities in Afghanistan to prevent further deterioration and collapse, as well as try to persuade the Taliban and the region that an educated society is crucial to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country.
Donors should think creatively on ways to safely support and elevate young Afghan activists still in Afghanistan, giving them the tools to foster reform at both the community and national level. Providing resources through online education and community-based education initiatives can help youth close the gap caused by school closures and lack of access. Numerous universities and learning centers have already adopted online learning platforms and practices that were developed during the pandemic to ensure education can safely continue. They also should consider online courses and campaigns to advise youth activists both inside and outside the country on how to safely engage politically with authoritarian regimes.
And should the formal education system continue to deteriorate, ensuring that these initiatives can expand and sustain themselves over time will be even more critical. Additional donor funding for the formal education system should be used as an incentive for allowing all girls to return to school, and to mitigate against interference in curriculum development. Increased support for agricultural development and vocational programs can boost employment while improving community livelihoods.
Alleviating the humanitarian and economic crisis is of paramount importance to child development, preventing further youth displacement and ensuring Afghans can go back to school.
Donors should also consider funding trauma healing and psychosocial support programs for Afghans both in-country and throughout the diaspora. This will not only help improve livelihoods but will lay the groundwork for reconciliation through addressing the shared legacies of war.
Matthew Parkes is a senior program specialist for USIP’s Afghanistan and Central Asia teams.