Right now, women and feminist organizations around the world are commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women with the 16 Days of Activism campaign. Starting on November 25 and running through December 10, this year’s campaign calls on governments worldwide to share how they are investing in the prevention of gender-based violence.

Women in Ghazni, Afghanistan. September 22, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Women in Ghazni, Afghanistan. September 22, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

While the campaign itself is worldwide, 16 Days of Activism should pay special heed to Afghanistan. In just 28 months, the Taliban have dismantled Afghan women’s and girls’ rights — imposing draconian restrictions regarding their education, employment and freedom of movement. Any perceived violation of these oppressive policies is often met with harassment, intimidation, and verbal and physical abuse orchestrated by the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue. And when women are detained by authorities, they have been subjected to cruel treatment, including torture. 

The Taliban’s anti-women policies, combined with an emboldened patriarchal system, have made Afghanistan the lowest-ranked country in the 2023 Women, Peace and Security Index. With humanitarian aid to Afghanistan drying up, the 16 Days of Activism offers a chance to renew international attention so that Afghan women and girls are not left behind. 

To ensure that Afghan voices are included in this year’s conversations, USIP launched an online survey asking Afghans both inside and outside the country about their personal experiences and views about the impact of the Taliban’s policies toward women to better understand where their needs lie. 

Taliban’s Policies Have Rolled Back Two Decades Worth of Gains

Almost immediately after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban began rolling back the over two decades of gains women had achieved in politics, governance, education, health and the private sector.

Within months, the Taliban suspended the Afghan Constitution, which had obligated the government to protect and promote human rights; replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice; ordered professional and working women to stay home until further notice; prevented women from travelling on long-distance (72 km/45 miles) road trips without a mahram; and imposed a strict dress code on women.

Those we interviewed, both men and women, underscored the immense impact that stringent measures on women and girls have had on Afghan society. Particularly, they pointed to the prohibitions on employment and education, the mandated dress code, and the requirement for a mahram as encroachments on fundamental women's rights. 

Additionally, a number of respondents highlighted instances of public humiliation — where the Taliban's religious police employed loudspeakers from moving vehicles or within crowds to critique women and their mahram, focusing on elements such as clothing choices, hijab styles and shoe colors.

One woman from Kabul said, “The Taliban view us as criminals. As soon as we step outside our homes, the religious police run to us to intimidate us, to scare us and to remind us that we belong at home.” 

These restrictions only intensified when women interacted with government agencies, where they were subjected to degrading behaviors, harassment and insults. 

In this context, women are treated as second class citizens, with no agency over decisions about their own body and life. The mental toll has been enormous — women we talked to expressed feeling suffocated, depressed, isolated and worthless. Consequently, there has been a surge in suicide attempts among Afghan women and girls, and they now account for three out of every four suicides and suicide attempts in the country.  

“The Taliban have robbed us of our identity and are taking our agency away,” said a woman from Paktia. “They want us to hide behind the walls of our homes. They don’t see us as human beings.” 

They want us to hide behind the walls of our homes. They don’t see us as human beings.

In the numerous responses, the Taliban were not the only underlying cause of violence against women. The widespread lack of awareness regarding women’s rights among members of the Taliban has also allowed deeply ingrained and traditional perceptions regarding gender roles to resurface in Afghan society — with the Taliban sparking a resurgence in other forms of gender-based violence. 

As a woman from Nangarhar noted, “The Taliban’s policies have unfortunately normalized various forms of abuse, including physical, mental and financial abuse of women.” Meanwhile, a teacher from Jawzjan expressed a sense of loss under Taliban rule: “Over the past two years, our society has regrettably regressed by several decades.” 

Forced Marriages and Domestic Violence

Financial hardship further compounds the challenges faced by women, with the prevalence of underage and forced marriages on a significant uptick. The dismal state of the Afghan economy, along with the lack of education for girls, has compelled families to wed their daughters out of perceived economic necessity. Furthermore, there is a disturbing trend of marrying young girls to much older men. 

The abrupt decline in women’s employment and economic standing — many women were employed teaching in girls’ schools that are now closed, or in beauty parlors that are banned — coupled with restrictions on education and freedom of movement, has taken a toll on their mental well-being. Meanwhile, soaring unemployment and poverty in Afghanistan mean families are spending more and more time within the confines of their home, fostering an environment that is often rife with distress, tension and domestic violence. 

Beyond acts of physical abuse, domestic violence can also take the form of isolating women from social engagements, publicly or privately disrespecting women, ignoring their opinions, taking control of their financial affairs, and restricting financial independence. 
Tragically, honor killings further compound the issue of domestic violence, and husbands who display negative behavior toward wives who give birth to girls represents another distressing manifestation of gender-based violence within familial settings. 

A Justice System Steeped in Anti-Women Sentiments

For victims of domestic abuse, the Taliban's justice system is a nightmarish ordeal. Perpetrators routinely go unprosecuted in Taliban courts (with cases involving murder an exception), allowing abusive Afghan men to no longer fear repercussions for the harm they cause women and girls. 

As one woman from Jawzjan told USIP: “In the republic era, individuals facing charges related to violence against women and those avoiding legal consequences sought shelter in regions controlled by the Taliban, deeming them safe havens. Currently, the entire country has transformed into a sanctuary.” 

Women who attempt to leave their marriages encounter further obstacles in exercising their legal rights. In March 2023, the Taliban invalidated numerous cases of divorce that were settled under the previous government. These women, who had once managed to secure independence, now find themselves coerced to reunite with their ex-husbands. Even those who manage to maintain their divorce face issues over child custody and the collection of alimony. 

Meanwhile, the Taliban Supreme Court’s recent disclosures do not include any initiatives to reel in child and forced marriage, or the practice of Taliban officials taking multiple wives. Despite their previous claims to the contrary, it’s clear where the Taliban’s legal priorities lie regarding violence against women and girls. 

The cumulative effect of these impositions is a stifling environment where women’s voices are devalued, their rights are curtailed, and their overall wellbeing is compromised. In assessing life under Taliban rule, it is crucial to address not just the external threats posed by Taliban decrees, but also how those restrictions perpetuate and worsen harmful behaviors in a domestic setting. 

The Taliban have only emboldened already-existing patriarchal norms in Afghanistan. Any attempts to foster a more equitable and just society must also address these root causes so that every individual, regardless of gender, is treated with dignity and respect.

Protecting Afghan Women and Girls

Comprehensive and immediate measures to address the challenges faced by Afghan women and safeguard their rights and well-being is urgently needed. 

During this year’s 16 Days of Activism, Afghan women are calling on the international community, particularly the United States and Europe, to utilize the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the global human rights sanctions regime adopted by the European Council in 2020 “to target individuals, entities and bodies – including state and non-state actors – responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they occurred.” The Magnitsky sanctions could send a message that Taliban rule cannot be normalized without addressing fundamental violations of women’s rights.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council bears the responsibility of preserving international peace and security. In Afghanistan, over 50 percent of the population faces severe marginalization by the Taliban —treated as criminals for exercising what should be protected freedoms and systematically excluded from all facets of society. A commissioned report from the U.N. Security Council’s special coordinator for Afghanistan, Feridun Sinirlioglu, calls for a new U.N. envoy to lead efforts to normalize the international community’s relationship with the Taliban if the Taliban observe international rights and security norms. The U.N. Security Council should not do this, however, without clear conditions on women’s rights and women’s security that must be met for the Taliban to increase their international standing.

In the meantime, it is essential to provide robust support and resources to U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Afghanistan Richard Bennett. He has a mandate to document and report on human rights violations, with a particular focus on the rights of women and girls. It is crucial that he is able to provide comprehensive oversight on the Taliban’s discriminatory practices to provide authoritative benchmarks for rights-based conditionality. 

Outside the U.N., the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) can take more concrete steps to address human rights violations against Afghan women and girls as a way to uphold Islamic values. The Taliban’s national restrictions on education, movement and employment are unprecedented among OIC states and inconsistent with classical interpretations of Sharia. The OIC can deliver this message most forcefully in support of women’s rights. 

Inside Afghanistan, religious scholars and the media have a vital role in raising awareness and educating male family members about the significance of respecting the rights of women and girls, both within households and in the broader societal context. Promoting an understanding of Islamic rights through diverse channels, including social media, conferences and community initiatives, is essential in fostering positive change. Together, these measures can contribute to creating a more equitable and supportive environment for Afghan women.


Related Publications

Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Final Report

Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Final Report

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

When announcing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021, President Joe Biden identified counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an enduring and critical US national security interest. This priority became even more pronounced after the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, the discovery of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul less than a year later, and the increasing threat of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) from Afghanistan. However, owing to the escalating pressures of strategic competition with China and Russia, counterterrorism has significantly dropped in importance in the policy agenda.

Type: Report

Violent Extremism

Why Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan Still Matters

Why Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan Still Matters

Thursday, May 9, 2024

From wars in Ukraine and the Middle East to rising tensions in the South China Sea, there is no shortage of crises to occupy the time and attention of U.S. policymakers. But three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the threat of terrorism emanating from South Asia remains strong and policymakers need to be more vigilant. Indeed, at the end of March, an Afghanistan-based affiliate of ISIS launched a devastating attack outside of Moscow, killing over 140 people.

Type: Question and Answer

Global PolicyViolent Extremism

View All Publications