This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
On August 30, 2021, the United States marked the end to the 2001-2021 war with the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The two-decade long war began with the invasion by an international military coalition led by the United States, and the subsequent toppling of the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate. This was followed by the establishment of an Islamic Republic that received international recognition. However, starting on May 1, 2021, the Taliban offensive overthrew the Islamic Republic and re-established its Islamic Emirate.
The troop withdrawal, however, was initiated in February 2020, when the Trump Administration and the Taliban, without the involvement of the erstwhile Afghan government, signed the US-Taliban deal in Doha, Qatar. This agreement established restrictions for the US and the Taliban vis-à-vis fighting, and provided for the withdrawal of all NATO forces from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban’s counter-terrorism commitments. Both these events – the Taliban offensive and the troop withdrawal – resulted in the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces, and the Taliban takeover in August 2021. This led to major impacts on society. One major consequence was the mass migration of civilians, and the significant deterioration in the human rights situation.
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Even as the Taliban claimed they would guarantee women’s rights, the aftermath of the troop withdrawal and the Taliban offensive led to a state characterized by an increasing number of restrictions on the lives of women and girls, apparently with the aim of erasing their presence from public arenas (Amnesty International 2023). The Taliban has evidently reneged on its commitments, setting back many gains achieved across the past two decades in Afghanistan. Right from installing an all-men caretaker cabinet to rejecting the 2004 Constitution, in which Article 22 guaranteed men and women equal rights (BBC News 2022; OHCHR 2022), and to closing down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, while repurposing the ministry’s former headquarters in Kabul to house the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Reuters 2021). Women and girls have been banned from finding work and accessing secondary and tertiary education, from entering parks, gyms, and other sites of recreation. Women and girls are expected to appear in public only with a mahram or a male chaperone, who must necessarily be a family member. They are expected to wear clothing that covers them from head to toe (Rukshana Media 2022).
Initiatives that protected them from gender-based violence under the Elimination of Violence against Women Law in 2009 ( have been dismantled (Amnesty International 2023). Women’s peace protests were also met with brutal crackdowns (FIDH 2021). Several women have been subject to physical violence, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, arrest and detention for weeks (Amnesty International 2023). Several of them were released only after work licenses, land or other property deeds, and identification documents were submitted (Amnesty International 2023). Even as the Taliban issued a Special Decree on women’s rights, suggesting that women cannot be forced, coerced, or pressured to marry, the reality is very different (UNICEF 2021).
Basis of the Use of Sexual Violence
Gender-based discrimination and violence underlines the Taliban’s engagement with civil society. Even in its first rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban was known for their misogyny and violence against women (Gohari 1999). The restrictions on women and girls are intended as a means of exercising control over women and girls, and by extension, their families. The Taliban justifies its discriminatory and violent policies and laws through its ideology, called Deobandi, which involves a deeply repressive and fundamentalist interpretation of Shariah Law (Mehrdad 2022). They perceive the control of women a symbol of their authority over the entire society (Mehrdad 2022). Women are considered a representation of the honour of a man, therefore the harassment, rape, or sexual assault of a woman is not considered wrong because the woman has been harmed, but rather because the honour of the man she represents has been harmed (Mehrdad 2022). The Taliban also consider women a source of sin in society, which normalizes its approach of preventing women from accessing public places.
Amnesty International (2022). Afghanistan, Women human rights defenders arrested by the Taliban must be immediately released. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/11/afghanistan-women-human-rights-defenders-arrested-by-thetaliban-must-be-immediately-released/
Amnesty International (2023). Afghanistan: The Taliban’s war on women: The crime against humanity of gender persecution in Afghanistan https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa11/6789/2023/en/
BBC News (2022). Afghanistan: Taliban ban women from universities amid condemnation. https://www.bbc.com/news/ world-asia-64045497
Mehrdad, E. (2022). Understanding the Taliban’s War on Women. https://thediplomat.com/2022/07/understanding-the-talibans-war-on-women/
FIDH (2021). Broken promises: Civil society under siege after 100 days of Taliban takeover. https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/afghanistan/broken-promises-civil-society-under-siege-after-100-days-of-taliban
Gohari, M. J. (1999). "Women and the Taliban Rule". The Taliban: Ascent to Power. Karachi: Oxford University Press.
HRW (2021). “No Forgiveness for People Like You”: Executions and Enforced Disappearances under the Taliban in Afghanistan. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2021/11/%20afghanistan1121_web.pdf.
Human Rights Watch (2021). “I Thought Our Life Might Get Better”: Implementing Afghanistan’s Elimination of Violence against Women Law https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2021/07/ afghanistan0821_web.pdf
OHCHR (2022). Afghanistan, Banning women and girls from schools and workplace jeopardises entire country, UN committee condemns. https://www.ohchr.org/en/statements/2022/12/afghanistan-banning-women-and-girlsschools-and-workplace-jeopardises-entire
Reuters (2021). Taliban replaces women’s ministry with ministry of virtue and vice. https://www.reuters.com/world/asiapacific/taliban-replaces-womens-ministry-with-ministry-virtue-vice-2021-09-17/
Rukhshana Media (2022). Taliban: Female government employees aren’t allowed to go to work without hijab. https://rukhshana.com/en/taliban-female-government-employees-arent-allowed-to-go-to-work-without-hijab
UNICEF (2021). Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, Girls increasingly at risk of child marriage in Afghanistan. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/girls-increasingly-risk-childmarriage-afghanistan