Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Statement on Women in Afghanistan at a mock hearing
before Senator Diane Feinstein
Washington, D.C., March 2, 1998
As released by the Office for International Women's Issues
U.S. Department of State
[End of document]
Women in Afghanistan
Madame Chairwoman, thank you for this opportunity to testify this morning on women in Afghanistan.
All people in Afghanistan have suffered greatly during the civil war which has continued for 18 years. There is no central government. The Pashtun-dominated ultra-conservative Islamic movement known as the Taliban controls over two-thirds of the country, including Kabul, the capital and largest city. The years of conflict have left hundreds of thousands of Afghans as internally displaced persons and according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) there are 5 million refugees living outside the country. 2.4 million of these live in Pakistan. A disproportionate number (75 percent) of these are women and girls.
Human rights violations have been perpetuated by all sides in the conflict. This includes the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on residential areas; detention of people after being abducted by the various armed groups; torture of civilians including rape of women; routine beatings and ill-treatment of civilians suspected of belonging to rival political groups; killings of thousands of men, women and children by armed guards during raids on their homes, etc. The world press reported the discovery in November 1997 of mass graves in northern Afghanistan, which contained an alleged 2000 corpses, reportedly of Taliban forces captured and executed by Northern Alliance forces. The UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are investigating these allegations.
Since the emergence of the Taliban as a military and political force in late 1994, and again immediately after the arrival of the Taliban in Herat in September 1995 and in Kabul on September 27, 1996, there have been disturbing reports of an increase in serious human rights abuses against the civilian population. Among their first acts after entering Kabul was to execute and hang the badly bruised bodies of former president Najibullah and his brother who had been sheltered in a UN compound since the fall of his Soviet-backed government in April 1992. There was already widespread discrimination against women, rapes, kidnappings and forced marriages which were participated in by all political factions. The situation of women, poor to begin with, however, worsened drastically when the Taliban captured the city of Herat and Kabul.
The Taliban's Islamic courts and religious police, the Department to Propagate Virtue and Eliminate Vice, enforce their extreme interpretation of Islamic punishments, such as public executions for adultery or murder and amputations of one hand and one foot for theft. For other infractions, Taliban militiamen often decide right or wrong and mete out punishments such as beatings on the spot. Women are increasingly the objects of these beatings.
Taliban treatment of women
Under the Communist regime of the 1980s, a growing number of women, particularly in urban areas, worked outside the home in nontraditional roles. There were many women lawyers, judges and doctors in Kabul. This trend was reversed when the Soviets were ousted in 1992 and an Islamic government was installed. This backward trend significantly intensified in 1997 with the Taliban controlling two thirds of the country. Women and girls have become virtually invisible. In northern Afghanistan and pre-Taliban controlled Kabul, women were allowed to work and girls to attend school. This has changed under the Taliban.
The treatment of women by the Taliban has been aptly characterized by Secretary of State Albright during her recent visit to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar as "despicable." She said "We are opposed to their approach to human rights, to their despicable treatment of women and children and their lack of respect for human dignity, in a way more reminiscent of the past than the future." European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, Emma Bonino, said "Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the law enforces segregation on grounds of gender. This is not only a gross violation of human rights: This is real gender apartheid." Even Emma Bonino experienced this treatment by the Taliban when she was detained for several hours on a visit to Afghanistan last year. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech at the United Nations on December 10, 1997 said "Even now, the Taliban in Afghanistan are blocking girls from attending school. Not only that -- they are blocking those like Emma Bonino, European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, who would speak out on behalf of this injustice."
When the Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996, they immediately issued edicts forbidding women to work, including female doctors and nurses in hospitals. They required that houses with female occupants have their windows painted over. Women were forbidden from going outside the home unaccompanied by a male relative. If they did appear in public, they were required to wear a long robe called the "burqa" covering them from head to toe. A small mesh covered opening provides the only means to see. A number of women have been struck and killed by cars because of their restricted vision under the burqa. Many women have been brutally whipped in public by Taliban guards wielding long chains, for any perceived transgression from these rules.
The Taliban forbid girls from attending school and receiving an education. (There are credible reports that some Taliban men, however, have sent their wives and daughters to refugee camps in Pakistan to receive an education.) Men were also ordered to grow long beards and pray in the mosque five times a day. Music was banned, along with photographs and children's games such as kite flying. These bands are imposed arbitrarily. Punishment includes severe beatings and possible execution.
The impact of Taliban restrictions on women is most acutely felt in cities such as Herat and Kabul where there are significant numbers of educated and professional women, compared with rural areas where women have been traditionally excluded from public life. Kabul University, which has closed since the Taliban took over, reportedly had about 8,000 women students while thousands of professional women worked in different capacities in the city. In Herat about 3,000 women reportedly lost their jobs after the Taliban took control in September 1995. There are credible reports that many women, especially professional women, now house bound, have attempted suicide by swallowing household cleaner, rather than continuing to live under these conditions.
In Kabul many women wore the burqa before the Taliban took control. However, it was not an enforced dress code. Women appeared in public usually wearing scarves that just covered the head. Working women who demonstrated in Herat in late 1995 against the restriction imposed by the Taliban were attacked and beaten by the Taliban. Women who show even an inch of their ankle below their burqa or who are found to move about without a reason acceptable to the Taliban are relentlessly targeted. One woman in the city of Farah received bullet injuries for appearing in public to take her toddler to a doctor. The child had acute diarrhea and needed the immediate attention of a doctor. Women carrying babies have been whipped because a few inches of bare leg showed between the shoe and the bottom of their pajama style trousers under the burqa. One newspaper reported that a mother struggling with two children and her groceries was whipped by the Taliban with a car antenna because she had let her face covering slip a fraction.
Women who do not have a burqa have had to spend excessive amounts of money to buy one. In mid-October 1996, a burqa reportedly cost as much as US$33, about three times the salary of a senior civil servant. This imposes an additional punishment on women who have already lost their jobs for simply being women.
The Taliban edicts have been especially hard on an estimated 30,000 widows, many of whom are the sole providers of the family. They now cannot work to provide for the family. Also hard hit are women who do not have close male relatives to accompany them in public. Disabled women who must wear a prosthetic device are literally house bound because they cannot wear the burqa over the prosthetic device or other aid and thus cannot appear outside the home.
Women's access to medical services and hospitals has been drastically reduced. Female nurses, who form the backbone of the health system in Kabul, were repeatedly beaten by guards for failing to wear the burqa. A few nurses have been allowed to work in very limited situations. Over 50 female patients in one Kabul hospital were told in October 1996 to go home because their modesty cannot not be preserved in an overcrowded ward. In January 1997 hospital directors were directed to cease services to women and discharge female staff. Services for women were to be provided by a single hospital still partially under construction. This order was modified to allow for emergency care for women in all hospitals. Later the Kabul Caretaker Council allowed for the provision of non-emergency treatment for women in eight Kabul hospitals. It was reiterated that women could be seen for emergency services in any Kabul hospital. However, in one instance, a woman burn victim died after Taliban authorities would not allow her to be treated by a male doctor. Taliban militia men still beat women in the streets on their way to the hospital.
Delivery of humanitarian assistance
Taliban gender restrictions continue to interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance to women and girls. In a letter addressed to the UN, the Taliban asked that assistance be provided to women through their close male relatives rather than directly. A number of relief agencies have suspended their programs in areas under Taliban control. In 1995 UNICEF suspended its educational programs in Taliban controlled areas on the ground that the Taliban's opposition to education for girls violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which prohibits such discrimination. A number of non-governmental organizations suspended their humanitarian operations.
Humanitarian work of the UN agencies and non-governmental organizations has been severely curtained by Taliban authorities which do not permit women staff to participate in ongoing programs outside the health sector. This means the agencies are not able to carry out needs assessments, distribution, monitoring and other activities vital to reaching individuals in need. Women and girls are prohibited from participating in mine awareness programs. Relief agencies have noted a sharp rise in mine-related injuries suffered by women and girls as a result.
United States funding of programs for Afghan women
Promoting the observance of human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls, is one of our highest foreign policy priorities in Afghanistan. We will continue to press the Taliban and other Afghan factions to extend equitable and humane treatment to women and girls. The United States also supports world wide efforts of the international community to improve the status of women in Afghanistan.
We would like to see emerge an Afghan government that is multi-ethnic, broad-based and that observes international norms of behavior. We are committed to bringing all Afghan factions into compliance with international norms of behavior on all human rights issues including the rights of women and girls. We are concerned about human rights for all Afghan people of all religions, ethnic groups and gender.
Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Karl F. Inderfurth, before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on October 22, 1997 said that "today's tightened rules on women's right to work and girls' right to education have made their situation far worse, and justifiably have shocked the world. We call upon the Taliban to lift its restriction on the employment of women and the schooling of girls; we also call upon the Taliban and all factions to abide by internationally-accepted norms of human rights."
We are facing in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, one of the worst examples of the treatment of women in history. Women are not merely discriminated against. It is worse than that. They have been brutalized and made "invisible" by the edicts and punishment inflicted on them simply for being women. This is wrong and must stop. This also points to another reason it is so important that CEDAW be ratified. CEDAW provides a standard to judge situations just like this. The United States and the rest of the international community must insist that this treatment be reversed. Time is of the essence. As girls sit at home without an education, we will soon lose an entire generation of enlightened, educated women. As Secretary Albright said, "This approach to women's rights is medieval; it cannot be justified or defended." I think we all agree with that sentiment. It must be stopped before it is too late.