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In his speech on 8 July, President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw the troops by repeatedly emphasizing that the USA invasion of Afghanistan never focussed on nation-building. His objective was to fulfil the promise made by his predecessor Donal Trump to withdraw the troops from the region before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Thus, by 30 August, the last US troop had left Afghan soil. Nevertheless, much before the withdrawal, Kabul has fallen into the hands of the Taliban. Following the takeover, on 17 August, the militant group held its first press conference. 

Abdullah Mujahid tried to reassure the international community and the Afghan civil society about women’s rights. He said, “our sisters and men have the same right” however that has been far from reality. At first, the international community believed that the Taliban had changed – become more tolerant and accommodating to the developments in the country over the past two decades. However, the Afghan women knew well that there was never a Taliban 1.0 (before the war) or Taliban 2.0 (after the war). The Taliban has remained the same, with its ideology embedded in conservative Sharia laws. Thus, in the wake of the controversy created by their narrow-mindedness, it has become evident that the progress in the upliftment of women has been highly fragile in Afghan society. There are challenging times ahead for the women in Afghanistan. 

Women’s Status Under the Taliban 

For centuries, women have been affected disproportionately by any armed conflict. The scenario in the Afghanistan war from 1996 to 2001 was no different. Women in Afghanistan endured harsh circumstances due to the policies of the Taliban, as they were treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Several restrictions were imposed on the entire society. Unfortunately, women were affected the most due to the brutality of the rules of the extreme version that was the combination of Salafi Islam and Pashtunwali. Under their regime, women and girls were restricted from accessing health care, education, and jobs. They were not even allowed to be in public without a male chaperone. 

Post-Taliban Era and the Subsequent Struggle 

However, all of that changed with the fall of the Taliban regime and the subsequent Bonn Agreement. The agreement focused on the gender issues brought to the forefront due to the oppressive activity of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice under the Taliban [1]. Women’s rights gained massive recognition due to the emergence of several NGOs, donor agencies, the international community, and Afghanistan’s government. The entire process was marked by crucial gains and sometimes significant setbacks. Nonetheless, the women who led the fight to secure their rights- be it education, health, or well-being in society. 

Literacy Among Women

Educating women is not only a moral or a legal obligation but is also an economic necessity. Education opens windows of opportunities for women, eventually leading to the country’s economic growth to contribute financially. Thus, the Afghanistan constitution adopted in 2004 guaranteed education to every citizen, men or woman, under Article 22. In 2003, less than 10% of girls were enrolled in primary schools. By 2017, the figures raised 33% of girls enrolled in primary schools. [2]  It indicates positive change regarding more girls being encouraged to attend school. Despite that, the harsh reality is that not even half of the eligible population is enrolled in primary school. In terms of secondary education, the country recorded 40% of female enrolment in 2018, increasing from about 6% in 2003. [3] In other words, only 5,000 female students were enrolled in schools in 2001. [4] 

Thus, from girls being banned from schools in 2001, the country had achieved enormous progress by 2018. There were 3.6 million female student enrolments – 2.5 million females in primary schools and over 1 million in secondary schools. [5]The gender disparity in higher education enrolment, according to the Ministry of Higher Education (MHE), has decreased over time. It showed positive trends toward female students entering Afghan Universities. For instance, data from Afghanistan’s national entrance exam – Kankor showed that in 2003, only 1,000 female students enrolled for the exam. By 2013, those figures had reached an all-time high of 78,000 female students. The total number of female students who enrolled in college also increased significantly. [6]  

Nevertheless, a lot needs to be achieved. At the secondary education level, the girl dropout rate increased. Even though there were 200,523 girls enrolled in Grade VI, only 97,310 girls further progressed to Grade VII. [7] Only 11% of the girls eligible for lower secondary schools and 4% for higher secondary schools are enrolled in educational institutions. Also, only 37% of teenage girls qualify compared to 66% of boys in reading and writing abilities. [8] Despite several initiatives by the government and international organizations, there have been several barriers to women’s education. These barriers include early marriages, lack of infrastructures such as sanitation facilities, shortage of qualified female teachers in several schools in rural areas, and long distances to reach school. Adding to this burden are the Taliban’s current educational policies that involve restricting female students from attending schools, thereby impacting their prospects of a bright future. [9] 

Health Care

The health care system went through a massive restructuring in 2002. The maternal mortality rate of 1340 per 100,000 live births in 2002 had significantly dropped to 638 in 2017. [10]  Correspondingly, the child mortality rate (under five years of age) fell from 138 in 2000 to 68 in 2020. [11] Also, the life expectancy at birth for females recorded as 57 years in 2000 increased to 66 years in 2019. [12] The system went through a major transition due to several international collaborations with USAID, World Bank, and the European Union. International donors also ensured monetary assistance that improved women’s healthcare access. In 2018, 3,135 healthcare facilities were made functional in the region, guaranteeing immediate healthcare access to 87% of the population. [13]

However, post with Taliban takeover, there has been causing worry among the international community that the fragile healthcare system would collapse without international support. It comes as worry as the International Monetary Fund recently froze its foreign reserves of US $9 billion. [14] Also, several donors have pulled out from the country, which would eventually impact healthcare solutions in 31 of the 34 provinces as the healthcare contracts are given to non-governmental organizations. [15]. Not only that, but one in 4 COVID-19 facilities has also been closed so far. [16] More than 2000 healthcare facilities, which are 90% of the entire healthcare facilities, are at risk of getting close. [17] These would lead to several chronic diseases due to the lack of essential medicines and other medical equipment, with women being most impacted. 

Security and Violence Against Women 

Violence against women and girls is common across Afghanistan. Incidences of honour killing, murder, beating, mutilation, child marriages, and trading of young girls to pay the debt to elders and give away girls for dispute resolution (baad) are still prevalent in various country provinces. However, there have been several attempts by international organizations and governmental policies, including the adoption of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law in 2009, to reduce the security threat and violence against women. The law mandated punishment for 22 different crimes against women. Crimes that were not covered under the EVAW law were covered under the Afghan Penal Code. These laws finally became the ray of hope for 87% of women who have faced abuse in their lives as they would be able to seek justice. [18] These laws result from the constant effort by the policymakers to ensure that significant progress is achieved in community security and reduced crime rate against women.

However, there have been several instances where women have been lured away by the criminal justice system. It was either due to the prevailing corruption or because the police tried mediation between the victim and the abuser, despite being illegal under the EVAW law. The challenges of implementing the EVAW law are that the Afghan Legal System is complicated. Including the 1976 and the new 2018 penal codes, the 2004 constitution, and incorporating the Islamic Hanafi jurisprudence and the Sharia law makes the Afghan legal system highly pluralistic to applicability. All these barriers and the social perception of Afghan society that values women as lesser than men further thwart the process of justice for women. For these reasons, despite several new laws, Afghanistan remains one of the most challenging places in the world for women to survive.[19] 

With the Taliban in power in the region, the situation is expected to deteriorate further for women. Less than a month since the Taliban took over the country, they ensured that the Ministry of Women Affairs building was converted into offices for religious morality police. [20] Under the US military, several organizations had set up various protection service shelters for abused women. Some of those organizations, such as Women for Afghan Women, ran family guidance centres, safe houses, and children’s homes in 14 provinces forced to close due to the Taliban’s fear. [21] It is really unfortunate to see the Afghan women having a tough road ahead of them. 

Recommendations to Restore the Pride of Afganisthan Women

  • We need to reinstate the Ministry of Women’s Affairs

The objective of the government body was to empower women and girls and protect their rights. Their services should be made accessible in all the provinces of the country. Proper mechanism to ensure that women and girls can access their assistance without any hindrance

  • Need for accountability of human rights violation

An independent fact-finding mechanism must be created that investigates and documents the human rights violations committed by state and non-state actors, emphasizing women and girls.   

  • Ensure the participation of females in all decision-making levels in the country

The UNAMA activities in Afghanistan must be renewed to focus on national development and governance from a gendered perspective.

  • We need to protect and promote women’s rights.

We need to ensure that women do not face any discrimination in the country. They must have equal political, cultural, economic, education, and employment rights to women in public life. Promote new organizations to safeguard women who are facing abuse. Also, women’s rights activists must be encouraged through financial support, political recognition, and other means.

Conclusion 

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2002, there has been a tremendous improvement in various sectors. There were many sectors in which substantial changes were made. However, there are also many sectors where changes could not be brought in. It is primarily because some policies tried to challenge the traditional norms of the society and were hence not received positively. Despite all that progress made over the two decades, the recent developments in the country made a huge reversal in Afghanistan. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban has reverted several fundamental rights of women, including freedom of expression, movement and association. Equal access to education and employment has been denied to women. Thus, keeping in mind the current scenario, the world leaders need to ensure that any national development process in Afghanistan should be linked to the safety, security and well being of women. The international community should also ensure proper accountability for violating women’s rights. Finally, we need to ensure the participation of lady representatives in the development of policies affecting women. No one can deny the rights of Afghan women. The sheer determination to fight for their rights resulted in a backlash for them in front of the world. Twenty years of their fight would be reduced to dust if the world leaders are not taking adequate attention to their current living conditions.

References

[1] Gupta, Sonal. “Explained: What Is the Taliban’s Controversial Ministry of Virtue and Vice?” The Indian Express, 17 Sept. 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/taliban-afghanistan-ministry-of-virtue-and-vice-explained-7514742/.

[2] Haque, Tobias. “Afghanistan’s Development Gains: Progress and Challenges.” The World Bank, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/33209.

[3] The World Bank. “School Enrollment, Secondary, Female (% Gross) – Afghanistan.” The World Bank, 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.SEC.ENRR.FE?end=2018&locations=AF&start=2001

[4] Kelly, Annie. “Afghan Girls’ Education Backsliding as Donors Shift Focus to Withdrawal.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Feb. 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2011/feb/24/afghanistan-girls-education-report

[5] Banerji, Annie, et al. “Afghan Girls Learn, Code ‘Underground’ to Bypass Taliban Curbs.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 28 Oct. 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghan-girls-learn-code-underground-bypass-taliban-curbs-2021-10-28/

[6] Women’s Education in Afghanistan, Jan. 2021, https://asimei.de/2cfgi/women%27s-education-in-afghanistan

[7] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan-Ministry of Education, 2019, National Education Strategic Plan for Afghanistan 1385-1389, https://neqmap.bangkok.unesco.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/National-Education-Strategic-Plan-for-Afghanistan.pdf.

[8] Human Rights Watch. “Afghanistan: Girls Struggle for an Education.” Human Rights Watch, 17 Oct. 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/10/17/afghanistan-girls-struggle-education

[9] Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, et al. “Afghan Women Fear the Worst, Whether War or Peace Lies Ahead.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/18/world/asia/women-afghanistan-withdrawal-us.html

[10] The World Bank. “Maternal Mortality Ratio (Modeled Estimate, per 100,000 Live Births) – Afghanistan.” The World Bank, 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.STA.MMRT?end=2017&locations=AF&name_desc=true&start=2002

[11] O’Neill, Aaron. “Afghanistan: Child Mortality Rate 1800-2020.” Statista, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1072357/child-mortality-rate-afghanistan-1800-2020/#:~:text=Despite%20this%20considerable%20decline%20in,child%20deaths%20occur%20during%20infancy

[12] O’Neill, Aaron. “Afghanistan: Child Mortality Rate 1800-2020.” Statista, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1072357/child-mortality-rate-afghanistan-1800-2020/#:~:text=Despite%20this%20considerable%20decline%20in,child%20deaths%20occur%20during%20infancy

[13] World Health Organization. “Health Systems.” World Health Organization, 2021, http://www.emro.who.int/afg/programmes/health-system-strengthening.html#:~:text=Afghanistan’s%20health%20system%20has%20been,population%20within%20two%20hours%20distance

[14] Britten, Stewart, and Masood Amer. “Preventing Collapse of the Afghan Health Service.” The Lancet, The Lancet, 11 Oct. 2021, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)02234-0/fulltext

[15] Thiagarajan, Kamala. “Afghan Health Minister: Health Care Is ‘on the Verge of Collapse.’” NPR, NPR, 18 Sept. 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/09/18/1038068777/afghan-health-minister-health-care-is-on-the-verge-of-collapse-but-im-optimistic

[16] Katzenberg, Lauren. “Nearly 1 in 4 Hospitals Treating Covid in Afghanistan Have Shut down, the W.H.O. Warns.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/22/world/asia/afghanistan-covid-hospitals.html

[17] World Health Organization. “Funding Pause Results in Imminent Closure of More than 2000 Health Facilities in Afghanistan.” World Health Organization, 2021, http://www.emro.who.int/afg/afghanistan-news/funding-pause-results-in-shut-down-of-more-than-2000-health-facilities-in-afghanistan.html.

[18] Glinski, Stefanie. “’Violence Starts at Home’: The Afghan Women Tackling Domestic Abuse at Its Source.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Jan. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jan/29/violence-starts-at-home-the-afghan-women-tackling-domestic-abuse-at-its-source

[19] Fillion, Stéphanie. “Afghanistan Last in New Global Women, Peace and Security Ranking.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 19 Oct. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephaniefillion/2021/10/19/afghanistan-last-in-new-global-women-peace-and-security-ranking/?sh=649c5e225467

[20] Huylebroek, Jim, et al. “Taliban Seize Women’s Ministry Building for Use by Religious Police.” The Economic Times, 18 Sept. 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/taliban-seize-womens-ministry-building-for-use-by-religious-police/articleshow/86312802.cms?from=mdr

[21] Rubin, Alissa J. “Threats and Fear Cause Afghan Women’s Protections to Vanish Overnight.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/04/world/middleeast/afghanistan-women-shelter-taliban.html

Title image courtesy: BBC

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

Apoorva Iyer

By Apoorva Iyer

Apoorva Iyer holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Delhi University. She has published several articles and research papers on renowned websites and international journals. She has also worked in several think tanks and political and security risk consulting firms. Her interests lie in international relations and security studies.