Taliban Deprive Women of Livelihoods, Identity in Afghanistan

Human Rights Watch

Taliban rule has had a devastating impact on Afghan women and girls, new research shows, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Institute at San Jose State University (SJSU) said today. The organizations looked at the conditions for women since the Taliban took control in Ghazni province, in southeastern Afghanistan.

Since taking control of the city of Ghazni on August 12, 2021, days before entering Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, the Taliban have imposed rights-violating policies that have created huge barriers to women’s and girls’ health and education, curtailed freedom of movement, expression, and association, and deprived many of earned income. Afghanistan’s rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis exacerbates these abuses. Following the Taliban takeover, millions of dollars in lost income, spiking prices, aid cut-offs, a liquidity crisis, and cash shortages triggered by former donor countries, especially the United States, have deprived much of the population of access to food, water, shelter, and health care.

“Afghan women and girls are facing both the collapse of their rights and dreams and risks to their basic survival,” said Halima Kazem-Stojanovic, a core faculty member of SJSU’s Human Rights Institute and a scholar on Afghanistan. “They are caught between Taliban abuses and actions by the international community that are pushing Afghans further into desperation every day.”

Human Rights Watch and SJSU remotely interviewed 10 women currently or recently in Ghazni province, including those who had worked in education, health care, social services, and business, and former students.

They described spiraling prices for food staples, transportation, and schoolbooks, coupled with an abrupt and often total income loss. Many had been the sole or primary wage earner for their family, but most lost their employment due to Taliban policies restricting women’s access to work. Only those working in primary education or health care were still able to work, and most were not being paid due to the financial crisis.

The Taliban have banned women and girls from secondary and higher education, and altered curricula to focus more on religious studies. They dictate what women must wear, how they should travel, workplace segregation by sex, and even what kind of cell phones women should have. They enforce these rules through intimidation and inspections.

“The future looks dark,” said one woman who had worked in the government. “I had many dreams, wanted to continue studying and working. I was thinking of doing my master’s. At the moment, they [the Taliban] don’t even allow girls to finish high school.”

The women said they had acute feelings of insecurity because the Taliban have dismantled the formal police force and the Women’s Affairs Ministry, are extorting money and food from communities, and are targeting for intimidation women they see as enemies, such as those who worked for foreign organizations and the previous Afghan government. Most interviewees cited serious mental health consequences since the Taliban takeover, including fear, anxiety, hopelessness, insomnia, and a deep sense of loss and helplessness.

“The crisis for women and girls in Afghanistan is escalating with no end in sight,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Taliban policies have rapidly turned many women and girls into virtual prisoners in their homes, depriving the country of one of its most precious resources, the skills and talents of the female half of the population.”

For detailed findings, please see below.

Methodology

Ghazni province, in southeastern Afghanistan, has a population of about 1.3 million people, predominantly ethnic Pashtun and Hazara. The provincial capital, Ghazni, is on the road from Kabul to Kandahar, and was often attacked during the fighting of the past 20 years.

SJSU and Human Rights Watch conducted interviews remotely, using secure communications, with women currently in Afghanistan, all of them from Ghazni province. Most were in Ghazni province; a few were in other parts of Afghanistan. Most of those in Ghazni province were living in Ghazni city but some were in other parts of the province. The interviewees had worked in education, health care, government, and nongovernmental organizations or had been higher education students. Interviews were conducted in Dari with the consent of the interviewee. Seven of those interviewed are Hazara, one Pashtun, and two members of an ethnic minority group.

The value of the Afghan currency, the afghani, has fluctuated rapidly since the Taliban takeover. It was about 120 afghanis to 1 US dollar at the time of the research, and we have used this exchange rate for conversions.

Loss of Income, Employment

Nearly all the women interviewed who previously had paid employment had lost their jobs. “In Ghazni [province], only female healthcare workers and teachers can go to work,” a nongovernmental organization worker said. “Women working in other fields are forced to stay home now.”

“A few days after the Taliban took over Ghazni and Kabul, Mullah Baradar [a senior Taliban leader] said that women can go back to work,” a government worker said. “I went to work, but I was not allowed to go in. The Taliban members said, ‘We don’t need women to work anymore. You should not come back until further notice.’ But we are breadwinners of our families.” Her last paycheck was in July, and she is losing hope of being paid. “We used to go to show attendance, but they asked us to stop that as well.” She said some of her male colleagues were also dismissed and most government offices were closed because they did not have qualified staff.

Those still working have largely not been paid because health care and education were almost entirely financed by foreign donors, whose aid has been cut off. The only interviewee being paid regularly was working for an international nongovernmental group. “We haven’t been paid for more than five months,” a midwife said. “It’s very hard to manage for nurses and service staff because we don’t have any other source of income. The doctors have their private clinic or healthcare center. I personally find it very hard since I’m the breadwinner.” As of early January she still had not received her salary.

While primary schools for girls are open, the teachers have not received their salaries. A primary school teacher who is the main wage earner for her family of 10 said: “It’s been three months that we haven’t been paid. We go and teach, but nothing.” Her salary was 5,500 afghanis (US$46) per month and she previously supplemented this by teaching at a private school, but the private school also stopped paying teachers. She spends 300 to 350 afghanis ($2.50 to $2.90) a month for transportation to work, money she now takes from savings or family members.

UNICEF has taken the responsibility to pay the teachers, but we don’t know when and how,” she said. This teacher later received one month’s salary from her principal, but no back pay, and did not know the source of the payment.

Taliban restrictions have compounded the financial crisis for women. The owner of a business exporting products produced by female farmers said the farmers are no longer allowed to work, the products cannot be exported, and the farmers she sources from cannot afford transportation costs. “The Islamic Emirate [the Taliban government] does not allow women to work; even the women farmers cannot work on lands,” she said. “They used to work with us, but they all must stay home now.”

The financial crisis has decimated even paid work within the home. “We would weave or do embroidery – there was a market for that,” one woman said. “Now there are no jobs, no buying and selling. People have no jobs, no motivation and hope.”

A single mother who has not been paid for five months borrowed 10,000 afghanis ($83) from a cousin living in Saudi Arabia for a birthday celebration for her young daughter. “I want her to know that at the height of poverty, I care about her birthday and happiness,” she said.

Financial Crisis and Rising Prices

A financial crisis followed the Taliban takeover on August 15, as the economy collapsed and banking system froze. About 75 percent of the previous government’s budget came from foreign donors, but most halted their aid to government agencies and institutions shortly before or after the Taliban takeover. The Central Bank of Afghanistan, under Taliban control, has been cut off from the international banking system and access to the country’s foreign currency reserves.

The International Monetary Fund, reportedly at US request, prevented Afghanistan from accessing credit and assets. Past United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions and other restrictions on the Taliban for terrorism-related actions prevent the Central Bank of Afghanistan from receiving new paper Afghan currency, which is printed in Europe.

Much of the state bureaucracy is no longer functioning because many workers from the previous Afghan government have fled the country, or are afraid of returning to work, and the Taliban authority lacks funds to pay workers. Some humanitarian aid and other assistance provided by UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations has gradually restarted but remains severely curtailed due to Taliban restrictions, logistical difficulties including barriers to transferring money into the country, security concerns, staff evacuations, closures, and legal uncertainties including fear of violating sanctions. The UN World Food Programme has issued multiple warnings of worsening food insecurity and the risk of large-scale deaths from hunger throughout Afghanistan.

Ghazni interviewees, regardless of their financial situation before August 15, all said they felt the consequences of the financial crisis. “Our money has been frozen; we have no cash, we cannot feed our children,” a former worker for a nongovernmental group said. “It’s hard to run our lives.”

“The prices are getting higher on a daily basis,” a former government worker said. “Widows and female breadwinners who were the sole provider of their families are now facing high levels of difficulty. It’s painful to watch them turning to beggars with their children.”

“In Ghazni city, an egg costs 13 afghanis; it was 6 afghanis before [$0.11 versus $0.05],” one woman said. “All the essential food items have become impossible to purchase. Even Ghazni’s vegetables and its products have become so expensive. …Twenty-five kilograms of wheat would cost 1,500-1,700 afghanis [$13-$14]; now it’s sold at 2,500 afghanis [$21].” Another woman said the price of a jug of cooking oil had increased in her area from 500 afghanis to 3,000 [$4 to $25].

“We don’t go to the city anymore,” a former student said. “We can’t afford to buy anything.”

Because of a lack of liquidity and the freezing of the banking system, banks have often run out of cash and the Central Bank imposed a limit on withdrawals of 30,000 afghanis ($250) a week. Individual banks impose their own limits, usually $200 per week. Those with savings have difficulties accessing their money, and are afraid as their savings dwindle.

“We are a family of eight, and I have a university student in my family, I have school students, and my grandchildren are still kids,” a former nongovernmental agency worker said. “I was the only breadwinner of the family… No one works in our family now. We have survived by our friends’ support. We can only get 20,000 afghanis [$167] cash from the bank. My savings are ending.”

The financial crisis has affected daily lives in various ways. One woman also said that her area had experienced rising power cuts: “Most families do not have access to electricity even at night.”

Intimidation and Threats

Taliban authorities in Ghazni city search for women they see as having engaged in behavior they find unacceptable. A woman previously with a nongovernmental agency said she was in hiding, moving locations frequently:

I heard that they [the Taliban] entered our office. They collected our computers, saying, “These are the women who work for the foreigners.” …The night that the Taliban attacked the center of Ghazni, I fled to [another province] early the following day. They had asked about me. The imams have told me that the Taliban have asked them to report women who have worked with foreign NGOs [nongovernmental organization] and those who attempt to leave the country. …I was worried that our neighbors would report me to get credit from the Taliban. … I fear my colleagues as well; they might report me just to save their own lives.

Several said they had relatives or friends in hiding who were afraid to be interviewed. “Women who were in the army or worked as police were targets,” a government worker said. Women’s rights activists feared for their lives and either left the province or stopped their activities. I fear for my life too: I worked, and I was active in civil society. I don’t do those activities anymore.” Several cited the Taliban’s killing of two female police officers in Ghazni, days before the province fell to the Taliban, as having struck particular fear among women in the community.

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