A country scarred by war and violence

War has prevailed in Afghanistan for decades. In 2020, this was estimated to be one of the deadliest armed conflicts in the world. After the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001, the international community had a strong influence on the country’s politics, but it did not initiate the processes needed to come to terms with these conflicts. Former mujahideen who had carried out a bloody civil war in the 90s are now once again in government positions. This marked the return of political Islam and a rapid increase in criminality and corruption. The population is extremely poor and the number of internally displaced people continues to grow. Almost 80% of adults have some form of physical, functional, sensory or other impairment.

Women’s rights: hard-fought freedoms

After 2001, female activists fought for and achieved significant legislative progress but the government decrees on women’s rights failed to become lived reality for most women. Patriarchal structures, religious fundamentalism, corruption and the all-prevailing insecurity prevent this. Women living in conflict-torn regions, in extremely poor families, or in refugee/IDP camps are those with the least influence over their own life. As a woman it can be literally life-threatening to openly pursue an alternative life vision such as independence or homosexuality. Activists are worried about the consequences of the peace negotiations with the Taliban and the withdrawal of international troops.

Eight facts on women’s rights in Afghanistan:

1. Women’s rights in the Afghan legal system

In Afghanistan there are overlaps and contradictions between governmental laws, religious rules, and local conflict resolution mechanisms. A majority of all disputes are handled by village councils. Even when women are involved in conflicts, their rights are generally not considered when it comes to solving them. The deciding factors are local power relations, traditions, misogynist interpretations of Islam, and reconciliation between the families involved. Activists are working towards incorporating women’s rights into the religious, societal and governmental norms by means of a feminist interpretation of Islam. International feminist initiatives are supporting these efforts.

2. Forced and child marriages are widespread

Decisions about marriages are taken by the whole family, rarely involving the girls who are actually affected. About one in three girls are forced into marriage before they reach 18. As one measure to help change this, activists are campaigning for an increase in the statutory minimum marriage age for girls from 16 to 18. Another aim is the obligatory governmental registration of marriages. Establishing liaisons via marriage can have significant economic effects for both families, which is one of the reasons for forced and child marriages.

3. Rape seen as adultery

Sexualised violence is frequently treated the same as consensual adultery, which is illegal under Afghan law. This leads to women being judged and sentenced as perpetrators (of adultery) when they were raped. Activists in the larger cities have succeeded in reducing this legal scandal significantly. However, there is still risk of intra-family violence and even of so-called ‘honour killings’ in the wake of a rape or (suspicions of) an adulterous relationship. In general, violence committed against women within forced or child marriages is not being recorded sufficiently.

4. Safe houses very rare

Currently there are only 27 women’s safe houses operating in the whole of the country, and these are not secured for the future. Demand from women and girls for this type of protection far exceeds their capacity. The Council of Europe calls for one place in a safe house per 7500 residents. This would equate to 5120 places in Afghanistan. As a comparison: Germany also does not fulfil the CoE demands, but at least it does have 350 safe houses.

5. Increasing political participation by women

The participation of women in politics and the government and judiciary has increased significantly since 2001. Quotas ensure representation in the national and district parliaments, where the proportions of female delegates are now 25 and 27 per cent respectively. According to figures from the State Prosecutor, the proportion of women employed in the judiciary system has increased from 3 to 20 per cent. Across the country, 21 per cent of all defence counsel are women, and 265 judges are female, out of a total of 1951. However, during the peace negotiations with the Taliban, female participation was significantly less: very few women took part in the talks, a fact which attracted protest from women’s groups.

6. Women’s rights activists face extreme dangers

Waves of targeted killings are taking place. Activists have repeatedly demanded that the President fulfil his promise of quick and efficient protection for human rights defenders. They are also calling on the international community to help ensure this protection, as required by UN Resolution 1325.

7. High rates of infant and maternal mortality

Although maternal mortality could be reduced continually since 1990, at 638 cases per 100,000 live births, it is still one of the highest in the world. As a comparison: the figure in Germany is 4-5 cases per 100,000. The causes of these deaths include young age, vitamin deficiency and poor medical care during pregnancy: Twenty per cent of the women became a mother before they turned 18, and only 54 per cent of the births were attended by a midwife or doctor. The rate of infant mortality also continues to be one of the highest in the world: four out of ten children die before their first birthday.

8. Very restricted access to school education for girls

Although the proportion of girls aged 10 who go to school is about 60 per cent, it falls to just over 30 per cent by the time they reach the age of 15. And once they are married, very few girls are permitted to continue their education. Older girls, girls from families with a low income, and girls living in rural areas are all less likely to continue their schooling. Statistically speaking, school attendance is even less probable for girls with physical impairments: 80 per cent of these girls do not go to school. The reasons are generally discrimination, transport difficulties or other problems of access.

“My husband now treats me respectfully. You have performed a miracle for me.”

Sohra, client at Medica Afghanistan


(Status of: 06/2021)