EDITORIAL: Since the Afghan Taliban returned to power about three years ago, women and girls have faced systemic repression, from exclusion from the education system and work force, compulsory wearing of burqa, to ban on travel without a male chaperon, even on visiting recreational parks.

A new report the UN Rapporteur on Afghanistan Richard Bennet has presented to the UN Human Rights Council makes a damning indictment of the Taliban’s policy towards women and girls, describing it as institutionalized system of gender oppression, established and enforced through its violations of women and girls fundamental rights. Since last June, he notes in his report, the de facto authorities had issued at least 52 edicts that intensified restrictions on women and girls, which were increasingly enforced. Kept out of the education system, they faced heightened risk of forced marriages and debt bondage.

The UN Rapporteur goes on to say that violations against women and girls in Afghanistan were so severe and extensive he had concluded that they might amount to crimes against humanity, including gender persecution. As offensive as the Afghan Taliban’s gender policy is to civilized sensibilities, its characterization as a crime against humanity may seem a bit extreme to some. But it perfectly conforms to acts that may constitute the crime as defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, such as persecution against an identifiable group including gender, any form of sexual violence and sexual slavery (of which enforced marriage is a form) as well as forced pregnancy. The last issue alone can constitute that crime in the present case. For, in February of last year, the Taliban were reported to have started restricting access to contraceptives. Claiming that “contraceptive use and family planning is a Western agenda”, they ordered pharmacies to clear their stock of birth control pills and also threatened midwives to stop them from helping with unwanted pregnancies.

A major obstacle standing in the way of international community’s recognition of the Taliban government has been violation of women’s basic rights. The UN report has also asked the international community to avoid normalization with the de facto Afghan government until and unless there are demonstrated, measureable and independently verifiable improvements against human rights benchmarks, particularly for women and girls. The advice comes just a few days ahead of the June 30 UN conference on Afghanistan in Doha. The Taliban, of course, have reacted angrily to the report, calling it misleading and aimed at putting them under pressure at the conference. Nonetheless, considering that policy differences on women’s issues already exist between Taliban hardliners and pragmatists, it can only be hoped the former group would not want to lose the chance of winning international recognition by refusing to make course correction.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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