Afghanistan: Taliban's War on Women

Physicians for Human Rights newsletter, October 1998


The extent to which the Taliban regime has threatened the freedoms and needs of Afghan women is unparalleled in recent history. Taliban policies of systematic discrimination against women seriously undermine the health and well-being of Afghan women.

Enveloped by the shroud-like burqas (a head to toe covering for women that have only a mesh cloth to see and breathe through) that they are forced to wear or else face beatings, the women and girls of Afghanistan are today facing a crisis that threatens their very survival. Most Afghan women are prohibited by the Taliban from working, from going to school, from moving anywhere outside their homes without an immediate male family member as chaperone, restricted from visiting doctors, hospitals or clinics, and from collecting humanitarian aid.

Recently, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) carried out an unprecedented health and human rights study of women under Taliban rule. The results of 200 interviews were devastating: the vast majority reported a decline in their physical and mental state during the past two years of the Taliban's reign. But their deteriorating mental health was the most disturbing impact of the Taliban's gross gender discrimination.

A striking example of this discrimination is the Taliban's insistence that women may only visit a few designated hospitals in Kabul. PHR received testimony from a young mother who, with her two-year-old daughter suffering from diarrhea, was turned away from a "men's only" hospital because of their gender. The little girl died and the woman spent the night with the child's body, huddled within the rubble of a bombed building because it was after curfew. Women who make it to the few facilities designated for them do not fare much better. The Rabia Balkhi hospital has no oxygen, clean water, intravenous fluids, medicine, or x-ray machines. The maternity hospital appeared to offer only beds for women to lie in - six to seven per room, poor treatment, and no medication.

Even visits to doctors, dentists, and clinics have been severely restricted. Male doctors are prohibited from seeing any unaccompanied women. Women doctors have been largely prohibited from working at all.

The source of women's anguish, despair, and poor health is evident in the streets of Kabul. Women who were administrators, nurses, and teachers (fired from their jobs because of their gender) have sold everything they own to feed their children. They now beg on the streets. Those caught on the street without a close male relative as -a chaperone or caught revealing an ankle, face, or wrist, risk being beaten on the spot by fervent religious police who wander the city brandishing metal cables in search of dress code violators. Girls over eight may not go to school. Younger children may attend classes limited to teachings of the Koran. The city's 30,000 widows are particularly helpless.

A further explanation for the extraordinary high rates of depression and trauma experienced by Afghan women is the climate of terror that the Taliban has created in Kabul. Every Friday night, the regime carries out punishments handed down by courts devoid of due process. The citizens of Kabul are summoned to the sports stadium where they watch beheadings, hangings, or amputations of alleged criminals. Such sights terrify and traumatize women and their children who have already suffered the loss of family members, dislocation, landmine injuries, and the mortaring and shelling of their homes.

Life and death in Third World