HRW: Women Still Under Threat

Human Rights Watch, 9 May 2002

Afghan women continue to fear physical violence and insecurity even after the end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today.

Sexual violence by armed factions and public harassment tied to repressive Taliban-era edicts continue to restrict women in their movement, expression and dress, Human Rights Watch said in a new briefing paper released today.

“Women can only participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan if they can be physically safe,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “The international community must act now to end violence against women.”

Following the routing of the Taliban from power media coverage showed some women throwing off the burqa—an act which gave the impression that women were ready to show their faces in public and stop wearing the all-encompassing garment. In fact, women in Kabul and Herat continue to wear burqas on the streets as of this writing. Many women interviewed said they were afraid to walk on the streets uncovered. Their reasons varied but the common response was fear “of the men with the guns”. “Men with guns” refers to the former mujahidin or freedom fighters—those who fought under the commanders of the various warlords in the many phases of Afghanistan’s wars. Many fighters buried their guns when the Taliban took over. As soon as the Taliban were driven out they dug up the buried weapons and some of them began robbing and looting homes. In Kabul there were over 1000 robberies in one month and a number of murders after the departure of the Taliban.

Fear is a significant feature of women’s stories gathered during this research. Most women do not remember when they did not feel afraid. Their fear partly explains why women chose to continue wearing burqas even after the Taliban. Westerners have undeniably focused too much attention on the burqa issue. In the post-Taliban political climate the burqa has become a barometer of the level of insecurity women feel more than a women’s rights issue.

United Nations Coordinator’s Office for Afghanistan
The 11-page briefing paper, “Taking Cover: Women in Post-Taliban Afghanistan,” documents cases of attacks and threats against women that include rape and other acts of sexual violence and their effect on women’s participation in civil society.

Since the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in November 2001, women and girls have had growing access to education, health care, and employment. At the same time, many Afghan women still live in an environment in which personal physical security is constantly under threat. The Human Rights Watch briefing paper documents a number of cases of sexual violence in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif, including gang-rapes.

Many women continue to limit their movements and to wear a burqa, the head-to-toe enveloping garment, for their physical security, even though the Taliban-era edict requiring women to wear the burqa is no longer in force.

Human Rights Watch called on the international community to support the expansion of the mandate and duration of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), increase funding for human rights monitoring in Afghanistan, and provide direct financial and programmatic assistance to the Afghan Ministry for Women’s Affairs.

In addition, Human Rights Watch called on the Interim Administration, including local authorities, to take all possible steps to protect women from sexual and other gender-specific violence, and bring perpetrators to justice. Human Rights Watch also recommended that the Justice Ministry should repeal those laws that discriminate against women and are inconsistent with customary international law and international treaties to which Afghanistan is a party.

The briefing paper is available online at:

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