The brutal treatment of Afghan women at the hands of the Taliban became common knowledge in 2001 when the United States removed the brutal regime from power.  The Taliban stood out for aggressively and publicly oppressing and abusing women.  Yet oppression and violence against Afghan women existed well before the Taliban era and continues to exist today. 

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when many internal factions were fighting amongst each other for power, women bore the brunt of sexual, physical, and psychological abuses. The individuals from those factions are today’s warlords and in spite of being among the worst human rights violators – they sit in very high level official seats today.  They are making decisions that again affect the lives of the poor Afghan grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters who they do not recognize as human beings.

There has been significant progress for Afghan women on many levels since the fall of the Taliban. Yet today over 80 percent of women throughout the country continue to suffer from domestic violence.  And the challenge isn’t limited to domestic violence, but also societal and state violence.  

While laws are in place to protect women, they hardly function in practice. A woman who attempts to escape domestic violence or who is raped often finds herself and her young children sharing a jail cell with food and clothing for only the mother.

Human trafficking is also a problem in Afghanistan.  Women and young children are often sold into prostitution or forced labor.  Although they have been forcibly trafficked, survivors are often imprisoned for adultery or lewd conduct. If they are children, they are put into orphanages, only to be victimized more.  There are no efforts made towards their rehabilitation or reunification with their families.

Unfortunately, this is all too often not the exception but the continuing norm, and constitutes a failure of the justice system in Afghanistan.

There are several national and international laws in place to protect specific rights of Afghan women, but the biggest barrier to the effective implementation of these laws is cultural and tribal traditions that limit women’s understanding of and willingness to make use of those laws. 

Involving men is an important step to truly empowering Afghan women.  Afghanistan is a patriarchal society that will take decades, if not centuries, to change. For the time, due to oppressive social norms, men are often reluctant to allow their wives to leave the home, let alone to explore the possibility of working.  However, there are several progressive programs in various provinces run by local civil society organizations that include both women and men. For example, couples can attend literacy classes together. These types of programs help in couples jointly advancing their family and life, and encourage a greater sense of equality. 

These civil institutions are the key to long term change.  Societal change, as well as a specific commitment to helping Afghan women obtain access to the information, as well as facilities and resources will be necessary to address the problem of domestic violence and other violence against women and to help cultivate a greater respect for women as individuals.   

The Afghan government and international community have laid an excellent foundation for the critical work that needs to be done for the advancement of women’s socio-political rights, however, much work remains to be done in the recognition and enforcement of human rights laws.