A burka-clad woman walks along a road in Kabul on July 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain

After the US and allies ousted the Taliban in late 2001, the previously marginalized segments of the Afghan population – particularly women and young girls – achieved significant progress.

The post-Taliban constitution of 2004 was in fact designed to protect and uphold the rights of women, improve their socio-economic conditions and provide them with spaces in Afghanistan’s political life.

In 2009, the Afghan government adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law that criminalized rape and forced marriages. 

As a result of this rising commitment toward women’s empowerment, Afghanistan also joined the National Action Plan (NAP) in 2015 to implement the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).

This NAP was adopted to address the challenges that Afghan women faced in the aftermath of prolonged war and conflict. Yet according to a recent report by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Afghanistan occupies the last position among 170 countries in the world’s global WPS ranking. 

The reasons for Afghanistan’s disappointing WPS performance are perhaps many. To begin with, the doctrinaire version of sharia law that calls for reducing women’s rights and freedoms has remained popular not only among the Taliban – who initially enforced it – but also among other factions of Afghan society.

Thus, despite the creation of legal democratic protections for women, these strict iterations combined with the rigid patriarchal notions have resulted in a continual weakening of women’s rights and often shrinking socio-economic opportunities even years after the fall of the Taliban. 

As such, in Afghanistan’s context, the issue of women’s rights has remained highly contested, with several segments of society growing more and more conservative, often restricting women to domestic spaces.

In fact, according to a 2019 study by UN Women and its partners, only 15% of men were in favor of allowing women to work outside their homes after marriage, while two-thirds of Afghan men complained that women were being granted too much freedom under the government of that time. 

And while 27% of parliamentary seats were reserved for women, male Afghan political powerbrokers were often seen resenting quotas for women.

However, these statistics do not mean that Afghan women were not visible in the socio-political and economic spaces, but instead, they point toward the fact that despite their inclusion in these spaces, their participation in many ways remained limited. 

These systemic and institutionalized gender-discriminatory practices, exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, disproportionately impacted women and young girls with prevailing social norms impeding their access to health care, increasing economic inequality and worsening the rates of gender-based violence.

For instance, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), a total of 3,477 cases of violence against women were recorded in the first 10 months of 2020, of which 95.8% occurred at home. These gross violations of women’s rights include cases of rape, murder and suicide, which amounted to a total of 281 cases. 

Although the total number of cases of violence against women for the pandemic year 2020 stood 11% lower than the 3,910 cases registered with the AIHRC for the year 2019, it is important to keep in mind that under-reporting of domestic violence in Afghanistan is inevitable.

And the Covid-induced restrictions on movement combined with the closure of offices that support victims of violence have only made it more difficult to get a clear picture of the actual increase in violence against women. 

Along with the dire affects of the pandemic, the year 2020 also experienced a new high in terms of attacks on civilians in the war-ravaged country, with nearly 424 attacks recorded over a period of 235 days. And it was women who paid a heavy price for these attacks, with nearly 390 female deaths recorded during 2020. Thus, over the past decade, 2020 has proved to be the deadliest year for women and girls in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban takeover in August this year has added more fuel to the already worsening situation of women, peace and security in the country. Thousands of Afghan women are now living in fear that the militant group will roll back whatever small freedoms they have been able to achieve in the past two decades. 

Meanwhile, the Taliban, on various occasions, have promised to uphold the rights of women, yet reports emerging from provinces that were already under their control before they seized Kabul suggest otherwise. A prominent example of the Taliban’s barbarism was seen in Kandahar district, where Taliban gunmen were witnessed escorting female employees out of some banks, ordering them not to return to their jobs.

Extrapolating from these facts, it would be reasonable to state that at least for now, the future of women, peace and security in Afghanistan continues to look rather bleak under Taliban rule.

Akanksha Khullar

Akanksha Khullar is the country coordinator for India at the Women's Regional Network.