The phrase “gender apartheid” is used in a new United Nations report describing the continuing grave violations of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. The goal of using the term, the experts who wrote the report say, is to make such discrimination an international crime. In their investigation of the effects of rights repressions in the country, the experts said they were “deeply concerned that gender persecution is occurring in Afghanistan under the rule of the de facto authorities.”
Naming the Taliban’s gender abuses as apartheid “highlights that other States and actors and the international community at large, have a duty to take effective action to end the practice, as was done to end racial apartheid in southern Africa,” the UN specialists declare in their report. It is not the first time UN specialists and staff have used “apartheid” in reference to Afghanistan publicly, but until now there hasn’t been an actual plan voiced openly on how to apply it to international law.
The report “is notable because it details what could be a new approach for both activists and diplomats — framing the Taliban’s abuses as gender apartheid and seeking consequent responses from the international community,” said Heather Barr, women’s rights associate at Human Rights Watch. “This has given a shred of new hope to some Afghan women’s rights activists who felt before that they had hit a wall in terms of trying to make the world respond to their plight.”
According to the report, released last week and as is well known, “The Taliban are severely depriving women and girls of their fundamental rights, including their rights to substantive equality, quality education, equal participation in economic, social and political life, equality before the law, freedom from torture and other inhumane acts, freedom from discrimination and freedom of movement, peaceful assembly, and of association and expression.”
“The Taliban is punishing those who transgress its rights-violating edicts, enforcing severe deprivation of fundamental rights through acts or crimes of violence, such as arbitrary detention, torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment,” the document added.
Richard Bennett, the UN special rapporteur on Afghanistan since May 2022, produced the report with the chair of the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls, Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, a Spanish academic. Bennett said at a press briefing on June 19 in Geneva with Estrada-Tanck and others that grave, systematic and institutionalized discrimination against women and girls lies at the heart of Taliban ideology and rule.
Although gender apartheid is not an international crime, it could become so soon, Bennett said. The term is not recognized as an atrocity under the Rome Statute, the treaty that governs the International Criminal Court, but its use is growing, evidenced by a “gender apartheid” tracker set up by rights experts. The movement occurs as negotiations begin earnestly among UN member states on an international treaty codifying crimes against humanity.
The UN report found that the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls “may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity.”
“These serious deprivations of women’s and girls’ fundamental rights and the harsh enforcement by the de facto authorities of their restrictive measures may constitute the crime against humanity of gender persecution,” Bennett said. He is also an academic who has served in various prominent human-rights roles in the UN. A previous report on human rights in Afghanistan by Bennett covered the period of July to December 2022.
The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan nearly two years ago, when the United States and NATO withdrew their troops, culminating in the end of a war that lasted more than two decades.
Soon under the Taliban, the rights of women were narrowed, starting with girls being prohibited from going to school beyond the primary level, and women teachers being banned from working. Women journalists were required to wear a veil on TV and women’s employment opportunities shrank. Most recently, women have been banned from working for UN agencies or other nongovernmental organizations, with exceptions. Ultimately, women have been squeezed out of the public space, including being kept from sports stadiums, cinemas and parks. They are forced to wear the burqa, a full-body covering that obscures their faces, and failure to comply can result in punishment, including public beatings. Needless to say, reports of depression and suicide are widespread, the report noted, especially among adolescent girls who can’t go to school.
The Taliban “have to stop violating their international human rights obligations, and that includes the rights of women and girls that they’re brazenly disregarding,” Louis Charbonneau, the UN director of Human Rights Watch, told PassBlue.
For the violations to end, Bennett said that legal means must be explored to ensure that the de facto authorities respect not just the rights of women and girls but also human rights generally.
Apartheid, which is traditionally used to describe the segregation of a race by others, could therefore be used to describe the exclusion of a gender by another gender, Bennett said. “The definition of apartheid, which at the moment is for race, but for the situation in Afghanistan, use sex instead of race, then there seem to be strong indications towards that.”
At the Geneva briefing, Estrada-Tanck said that excluding women from public spaces is the core of Taliban policies. “Blatant forms of gender-based discrimination are perpetuated with total impunity, without any regard for women’s rights, safety or autonomy,” she said.
At the same time, she expressed concerns about the Taliban taking seriously the work of UN human-rights experts as well as civil society organizations’ possible solutions to the treatment of women in the country. One recommendation in the UN report is that the Taliban must ensure the compliance of Afghanistan with its international human-rights obligations by rescinding all discriminatory edicts and instructions issued since August 2021 specifically targeting women and girls.
“Human behavior is unpredictable,” Estrada-Tanck said. “I think the challenge is how to make the content of the report trigger change. We know from historical background that this is not easy and it is not something that will happen overnight.”
Historically, the Taliban have shown reception to negotiation, and experts think that consistent advocacy might bring the political will for the Taliban to loosen their authoritarian rule and reinstate the rights of women as equal members of the society. In February 2020, the Taliban made themselves available for negotiations with the US on how to reinstate peace to the country. The process took more than 18 months, but the parties accepted a pact called the Doha Agreement.
Yet so far, the UN and a range of other global mediators, advocates and even individual countries, like Norway, have failed to change the Taliban’s actions toward women and girls positively.
“Afghan people want peaceful engagement with the Taliban,” a human-rights defender from Afghanistan, identified simply as Medina, said at the Geneva press conference. “We can have this engagement for a long time and hope for a peaceful solution. The Afghan do not want war again. This is very clear. We do not want war. We want peace. Afghan people have nothing more to lose, they already lost everything.”
For Medina, no intervention is worth an Afghan life, and though she is grateful for Western attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, she reiterated that such intervention must be peaceful.
Corroborating the position of Medina, Estrada-Tanck said there was a need to build a culture of human rights in Afghanistan to sustain the advocacy. She recognized that the solution would take time but advocacy would prevail.
“We are not going to forget you,” she said.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.