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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Women's struggle in Afghanistan: An Insight from a Human Rights perspective

Women's struggle in Afghanistan: An Insight from a Human Rights perspective

Current student Nandhini Jaishankar's (MADev13) looks at what the history of women in Afghanistan tells us about women's rights as Human Rights
By Unknown -
By Unknown -
This video depicts the essence of the blog and helps us to understand what it is like to be a woman living in Afghanistan. With shifts in power, it shows how women’s rights have been abused and how they are striving to regain their rights in the present context.

Women’s struggle in Afghanistan: An Insight from a Human Rights perspectives

Human rights are certain basic rights that are entitled to all human beings without any discrimination, irrespective of their sex, nationality, ethnic origin, race, religion or any other status. However, across the globe, women have been victims of human rights abuses. They are denied their right to have access to education, employment, proper healthcare, decision-making power, as well as ownership of their own bodies and life. They are subjected to incur violence within their households and face discrimination by laws created by the state. Taking the case of women in Afghanistan, they have faced by far the most continuous and extensive struggle against the violation of women’s rights.

Since the time Afghanistan was established as a nation, the status of women has somewhat been contested. Over the last three decades, Afghanistan has been occupied by Soviet troops and US-led international forces, and in the years between them, it has been ruled by militant groups and the infamous oppressive Islamic Taliban. The status of women in Afghanistan has been constantly changing with the political landscape of the country. Women's rights have been exploited by different groups for political gain, sometimes being improved but often being abused.

Before the Invasion by Soviet Union (1919-1979)

Until the conflict of 1970s, women’s rights had a relatively steady progression in Afghanistan. In 1919, women had voting rights- only a year after women in the UK were given voting rights, and a year before the women in the United States were allowed to vote. At the same time, women also enjoyed several other rights. They had the freedom to choose what they wear, drive and travel among many other things. During the 1960s-70s, women had the right to work in a variety of different jobs including the government with new constitution bringing equality in many spheres of life. They constituted half of the labour force. However, during the Soviet Coup, women’s rights were increasingly being rolled back with the emergence of civil conflict between Mujahideen groups and government forces in the 80s and 90s, and then under Taliban rule. As the Soviet regime ended in 1992, the country was plunged into a state of violent power struggle. With different groups fighting for power, Taliban’s control started to begin and with it came a new authoritative status for women. Image: By Unknown -, Public Domain,

Under the Taliban Rule (1991-2001)

Steve Evans from India and USA [CC BY (]Under the rule of Taliban, ‘their’ version of Islamic Sharia Law was enforced. Women and girls were discriminated against in many ways, for the 'crime' of being born a girl. They were banned from going to school or studying and working. They were not allowed to show their skin when in public and did not have the permission to leave the house without a male chaperone. If a woman left the house, it was only in a full body veil (burqa), accompanied by a male relative. Women were barred from even accessing healthcare delivered by men. With women forbidden from working, healthcare was completely inaccessible. They were banned to speak in public or participate in politics. Thus, women became invisible in the public sphere and were imprisoned in their home. For instance, in Kabul, residents had to cover their windows, so that no women inside could not be seen from the street.Punishments were harsh, if anyone does not follow these discriminatory laws. A woman could be flogged for showing an inch or two of skin under her full-body burqa, beaten for attempting to study, stoned to death if she was found guilty of adultery. Rape and violence against women and girls were rife. Afghan women were brutalized by the law and in nearly every aspect of their daily life. As an example, in 1996, a woman in Kabul had the end of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish. Life expectancy for women is 46 years, with death in childbirth being the most common cause of adult women’s deaths. Therefore, the Taliban’s laws stripped Afghan women of almost all their rights, severely restricting their liberty. Image: By Steve Evans from India and USA [CC BY 2.0]

International Intervention (2001-2004)

After 9/11, the US immediately led an international military campaign intervening in Afghanistan. One of the key objectives advertised during the intervention was ‘liberating’ the women of Afghanistan. By this time under the Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan lived under severe restrictions. With the fall of the Taliban, women regained many of the basic rights that had been denied by them. After September 2001, the special adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women continued to address the situation of women's rights in Afghanistan in meetings with the Special representative of the Secretary-General and other senior officials within the United Nations.

Following the US-led intervention, many schools opened its doors to young girls and women were allowed to join the workforce. Women started to forge careers for themselves. More than a quarter of government employees were women and they were employed in the army as well. A military training camp was set up to train 100 females per year. Also, they started to enrol themselves in universities. New opportunities were opened for women and for the first-time women could reclaim their rights as active participants in the governance, as well as in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Radio and television broadcasts in Kabul once again feature woman commentators. Therefore, women in Afghanistan remained a key topic not only on the agendas of national, international, and nongovernmental but were also prevalent in media and research. However, despite these advances, violence still restricted women from participating in the social activities as they did not have enough support and were married forcefully, and were beaten up, restricting their scope of involvement in the public sphere. (Image: by U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios).

From 2004-Present: Why is Afghanistan still unsafe for women?

Although after the international intervention in 2001, the situation has improved for women and many programs are being put into place in order to help women who were victims of violence. But in spite of efforts from the government and international assistance to educate girls, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate, while 70-80 percent face forced marriage, many before the age of 16 as stated in a report by Amnesty International. Statistics by Time Magazine in 2014 depicts that 80 percentage of women commit suicides, making Afghanistan one of the few places in the world where rates of death are higher among women. Marriages often lead to domestic violence, with one in three women experiencing some sort of abuse, whether it be emotional or physical, at the hand of their husband. Nineteen years after the Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan still suffer as the extremist groups has managed to maintain its grip on sixty percent of the country. Today, the future of the women in the country is uncertain as the government poses a challenge to women’s rights. Afghanistan is ranked to be the worst place in the world to be a woman.

What does the future of womens rights look like?

I believe that it is extremely important to recognize women’s rights as a part of human rights to ensure equality and to end discrimination and violence against women. This can be achieved by changing laws and policies that marginalize women and provide equal opportunities to all girls and women that would empower them to act and decide for themselves. Specifically, for women in Afghanistan, women’s rights can be guaranteed through a democratic form of government, ensuring full participation of women in the political process. As the worst victims of human rights abuses, their participation plays a significant role in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan.  The inclusion of women and the future generations is not just about mere representation at the negotiating table. It means bringing the perspectives of more than half of the population into the peace process. It is about making sure the rights, concerns and contributions of everyone is considered at every turn and communicated forcefully in closed door meetings with the government and the Taliban and with other insurgent groups. 

Thus, the international community needs to be responsible for and to engage in these issues as a prerequisite to a reasonable dialogue on human rights as women’s rights as serious gaps and violations exclude women from enjoying the basic rights entitled to all human beings. Social attitudes towards women and patriarchal norms should be changed and challenged, and we should create awareness among young girls and women to know their rights and have the authority and power to claim them.
This is part of a series of blogs written by current IDS masters students and PhD Researchers. Look out for other blogs in this series, including: Barricades and democratic tsunami in Barcelona; Muxes, the third gender that challenges heteronormativity; That Night a Forest Flew; Eco-anxiety and the politics of hope: a reflective opportunity to build resilience; About Greta Thunberg and silenced environmental leaders; From alleged offenders to confessed sufferers: Participatory process in action; Women’s struggle in Afghanistan: An Insight from a Human Rights perspectives; Feminist Latin American movements demanding sexual and reproductive health and rights; India’s Progressing Ambitions in Development Finance; The British voting system for disabled voters is broken: How to fix it… plus others to follow on- Rwanda on a participatory theatre project, and USAID’s digital strategy.

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