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Afghanistan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.

Access to Asylum: The government had yet to adopt a draft national refugee law or asylum framework. Nonetheless, UNHCR registers, and mitigates protection risks of approximately 500 refugees in urban areas throughout the country. The country also hosts some 76,000 Pakistani refugees who fled Pakistan in 2014; UNHCR registered some 41,000 refugees in Khost Province and verified more than 35,000 refugees in Paktika Province.

Durable Solutions: The government did not officially accept refugees for resettlement, offer naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, or assist in their voluntary return to their homes. The IOM reported undocumented returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 504,977 from January 1 to December 29, with 485,096 from Iran and 19,881 from Pakistan. Registered refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 2,000 returns as of June 22. In addition to these numbers, there were 23,789 undocumented Afghan returnees from Turkey.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The EVAW presidential decree was first issued in 2009 and was reinforced by another presidential decree in 2018. Implementation and awareness of the law remain a serious challenge. The law criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including rape; battery or beating; forced marriage; humiliation; intimidation; and deprivation of inheritance. The penal code criminalizes rape of both women and men. The law provides for a minimum sentence of five to 16 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape, or up to 20 years if one or more aggravating circumstances is present. If the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for a death sentence for the perpetrator. The penal code also explicitly criminalizes statutory rape and, for the first time, prohibits the prosecution of rape victims for zina. The law provides for imprisonment of up to seven years for conviction of “aggression to the chastity or honor of a female [that] does not lead to penetration to anus or vagina.” Under the law rape does not include spousal rape. Authorities did not always fully enforce these laws, although the government was implementing limited aspects of EVAW including through EVAW prosecution units.

Prosecutors and judges in remote provinces were frequently unaware of the EVAW law or received pressure to release defendants due to familial loyalties, threat of harm, or bribes, or because some religious leaders declared the law un-Islamic. Female victims faced stringent or violent societal reprisal, ranging from imprisonment to extrajudicial killing.

The penal code criminalizes forced virginity testing except when conducted pursuant to a court order or with the consent of the individual. Awareness and enforcement of this change remained limited. There were reports police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order virginity tests in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subject to virginity tests.

The penal code criminalizes assault, and courts convicted domestic abusers under this provision, as well as under the “injury and disability” and beating provisions in the EVAW law. According to NGO reports, millions of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, in-laws, and other individuals, compounded by parallel legal systems and ineffective institutions of state, such as the police and justice systems. Women’s shelter operators in the western province of Herat reported the number of women seeking legal aid and protection in that province increased during the year.

Due to cultural normalization and a view of domestic violence as a family matter, domestic violence often remained unreported. The justice system’s response to domestic violence was insufficient, in part due to underreporting, preference toward mediation, sympathy toward perpetrators, corruption, and family or tribal pressure. There were EVAW prosecution units in all 34 provinces, and EVAW court divisions operated at the primary and appellate levels in at least 22 provinces.

Space at the 28 women’s protection centers across the country was sometimes insufficient, particularly in major urban centers, and shelters remained concentrated in the western, northern, and central regions of the country. Some women did not seek legal assistance for domestic or sexual abuse because they did not know their rights or because they feared prosecution or being sent back to their family or the perpetrator. Cultural stigmatization of women who spend even one night outside the home also prevented women from seeking services that may bring “shame” to herself or family.

In June the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) banned for life the Afghanistan Football Federation’s former head Keramuddin Karim and fined him one million dollars (one million Swiss francs) after finding him guilty of sexually abusing female players. At least five female soccer players accused Karim of repeated sexual abuse from 2013 to 2018 while he served as the federation president. The players alleged that Karim threatened them with ruin if they did not comply when he sexually assaulted them in a locked room in his office. Women who rebuffed his advances were labeled “lesbians” and expelled from the team, according to eight former players who experienced such treatment. Those who went public faced intimidation. In October and December, respectively, FIFA’s Ethics Committee found Sayed Aghazada, former general secretary of the Afghanistan Football Federation, and Mohammad Hanif Sediqi Rustam, the former assistant to Karim, guilty of abuses relating to the sexual abuse, banning them for five years and fining them $10,000 (10,000 Swiss francs), because they determined Aghazada and Rustam were aware Karim abused multiple players but failed to prevent or report the abuse. The AGO indicted Karim on counts of rape, but the court sent the case back to the AGO for further investigation before trial. Police did not execute a June arrest warrant against Karim, a former governor.

At times women in need of protection ended up in prison, either because their community lacked a protection center or because the local interpretation of “running away” was interpreted as a moral crime. Adultery, fornication, and kidnapping are criminal offenses. Running away is not a crime under the law, and both the Supreme Court and the AGO issued directives to this effect, but some local authorities continued to detain women and girls for running away from home or “attempted zina.” The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as nongovernmental entities, sometimes arranged marriages for women who could not return to their families.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law criminalizes forced, underage, and baad marriages (the practice of settling disputes in which the culprit’s family trades a girl to the victim’s family) and interference with a woman’s right to choose her spouse. NGOs report instances of baad still practiced, often in remote provinces. The practice of exchanging brides between families was not been criminalized and remained widespread.

Honor killings continued throughout the year. According to media reporting, in May a Taliban court in Shahrak District, Ghor Province, shot and killed a boy and girl for allegedly having an extramarital affair.

Sexual Harassment: The Antiharassment Law criminalizes all forms of harassment of women and children, including physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual. By law all government ministries are required to establish a committee to review internal harassment complaints and support appropriate resolution of these claims. Implementation and enforcement of the law remained limited and ineffective. The AIHRC reported more than 85 percent of women and children faced various forms of harassment. Women who walked outside alone or who worked outside the home often experienced harassment, including groping, catcalling, and being followed. Women with public roles occasionally received threats directed at them or their families. Businesswomen faced myriad challenges from the traditional nature of society and its norms and customs with regard to acceptable behavior by women. When it was necessary for a businesswoman to approach the government for some form, permit, or authorization, it was common for a male functionary to ask for sexual favors or money in exchange for the authorization.

In July media reported on allegations of sexual harassment at the highest levels of the government. Former female government employees accused senior government ministers of repeated harassment and attempted physical assault. Allegations have arisen against close aides of President Ashraf Ghani, although the government denied these accusations. In late July the government formed a special secretariat to deal with reports of sexual harassment, operating within the framework of the AIHRC. Nevertheless, senior officials continued to promote and participate in a culture of sexual harassment. According to media reporting, in August, two senior security officials fled after raping a young woman in central Bamiyan Province during Eid-ul-Fitr.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported they experienced discrimination within the judicial system. Some observers, including female judges, asserted that discrimination was a result of faulty implementation of law. Limited access to money and other resources to pay fines (or bribes) and the social requirement for women to have a male guardian affected women’s access to and participation in the justice system.

Prosecutors and judges in some provinces continued to be reluctant to use the EVAW law, and judges would sometimes replace those charges with others based on the penal code.

The law provides for equal work without discrimination, but there are no provisions for equal pay for equal work. The law criminalizes interference with a woman’s right to work. Women faced discrimination in access to employment and terms of occupation.

Children

Birth Registration: A citizen father transmits citizenship to his child. Birth in the country or to a citizen mother alone does not transfer citizenship. Adoption is not legally recognized.

Education: Education is mandatory up to the lower secondary level (six years for primary school and three years for lower secondary), and the law provides for free education up to and including the college level. UNICEF reported that 3.7 million children were not in school due to discrimination, poverty, lack of access, and continuing conflict, among other reasons, 60 percent of whom are girls. Only 16 percent of the country’s schools are for girls, and many of them lack proper sanitation facilities. UNAMA also noted that armed groups tried to restrict girls’ access to education. In April armed men on motorcycles set fire to two girls’ schools outside Farah City in Farah Province. Both were badly damaged, and the attack ended classes indefinitely for nearly 1,700 girls. Graffiti on the nearby walls championed the “Islamic Emirate,” leading to a suspicion of Taliban ties.

Key obstacles to girls’ education included poverty, early and forced marriage, insecurity, a lack of family support, lack of female teachers, and a lack of nearby schools.

Violent attacks on schoolchildren, particularly girls, also hindered access to education, particularly in areas controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban and other extremists threatened and attacked school officials, teachers, and students, particularly girls, and burned both boys’ and girls’ schools. There were press reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers and school officials, particularly against boys. The government claimed families rarely pressed charges due to shame and doubt that the judicial system would respond. There were reports that both insurgent groups and government forces used school buildings for military purposes. School buildings were damaged, and students were injured in Taliban attacks on nearby government facilities.

Child Abuse: The penal code criminalizes child abuse and neglect. The penalty for conviction of beating, or physically or mentally disciplining or mistreating a child, ranges from a cash fine of 10,000 Afghanis ($130) to one year in prison as long as the child does not sustain a serious injury or disability. Conviction of endangering the life of a child carries a penalty of one to two years in prison or a cash fine of 60,000 to 120,000 Afghanis (approximately $800 to $1,600).

Police reportedly beat and sexually abused children. Children who sought police assistance for abuse also reported being further harassed and abused by law enforcement officials, particularly in bacha bazi cases, deterring victims from reporting their claims. NGOs reported a predominantly punitive and retributive approach to juvenile justice throughout the country. Although it is against the law, corporal punishment in schools, rehabilitation centers, and other public institutions remained common.

In November human rights defenders exposed the sexual abuse of at least 165 schoolboys from six high schools in Logar Province, alleging that teachers, headmasters, and local authorities were implicated in the abuse. Teachers would often film videos of rapes and threaten to post videos if victims spoke out. The release of videos and exposure of the scandal led to at least five honor killings of the victims. Two human rights defenders were subsequently placed in NDS detention after exposing the allegations, forced to apologize for their reporting, and continued to face threats after their release. Several officials rejected the allegations. The AGO investigation into the scandal reportedly suffered from a lack of public and political support, insufficient investigation time, and faulty investigation mechanisms, including public interviews.

There were reports some members of the military and progovernment groups sexually abused and exploited young girls and boys. During the first six months of the year, UNAMA documented credible reports of four cases of sexual violence involving five children carried out by parties to the armed conflict. Two girls were raped by antigovernment elements, and three boys were raped, used for bacha bazi, or both by the ALP and ANP. According to media and NGO reports, many of these cases went unreported or were referred to traditional mediation, which often allowed perpetrators to reoffend.

The government took steps to discourage the abuse of boys and to prosecute or punish those involved. The penal code criminalizes bacha bazi as a separate crime and builds on the 2017 Law to Combat Crimes of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling in Migrants (TIP Law), which includes provisions criminalizing behaviors associated with the sexual exploitation of children. Article 660 of the penal code even details the punishment for authorities of security forces involved in bacha bazi with an average punishment if convicted of up to 15 years’ imprisonment if convicted. UNAMA reported the convictions of two civilian perpetrators of bacha bazi in Takhar Province. Nevertheless, no police officer has ever been prosecuted for bacha bazi.

The Ministry of Interior operates CPUs throughout the country to prevent the recruitment of children into the ANP. Nevertheless, recruitment of children continued, as CPUs did not oversee the ALP, which also recruited children. Additionally, the government did not have sufficient CPU reporting channels to identify children, prevent them from joining the security forces, and provide shelter, services, and family reintegration.

Early and Forced Marriage: Despite a law setting the legal minimum age for marriage at 16 years for girls (15 years with the consent of a parent or guardian or the court) and 18 years for boys, international and local observers continued to report widespread early and forced marriages throughout the country. By EVAW law those convicted of entering into or arranging forced or underage marriages are subject to at least two years’ imprisonment; however, implementation was limited.

By law a marriage contract requires verification that the bride is 16 years old (or 15 years old with the permission of her parents or a court), but only a small fraction of the population had birth certificates.

There were reports from Badakhshan Province that Taliban militants bought young women to sell into forced marriage. The UN Development Program Legal Aid Grant Facility reported women increasingly petitioned for divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children. In addition to outlawing the practice of bacha bazi, the penal code provides that, “[i]f an adult male has intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, his act shall be considered rape and the victim’s consent is invalid.” The penal code also treats nonstatutory rape of a child as an aggravated form of the offense, punishable if convicted by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. The EVAW Law prescribes a penalty of 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for conviction of forcing an underage girl into prostitution. Taking possession of a child for sexual exploitation or production of pornographic films or images constitutes trafficking in persons under the TIP Law regardless of whether other elements of the crime are present.

Child Soldiers: In 2016 the Law on Prohibition of Children’s Recruitment in the Military became effective. Under the penal code, conviction of recruitment of children in military units carries a penalty of six months to one year in prison. There were reports the ANDSF and progovernment militias recruited and used children, and the Taliban and other antigovernment elements recruited children for military purposes (see section 1.g.). Media reported that local progovernment commanders recruited children younger than 16 years. The Taliban and other antigovernment groups regularly recruited and trained children to conduct attacks.

Displaced Children: During the year NGOs and government offices reported high numbers of returnee and drought-displaced families and their children in border areas, specifically Herat and Jalalabad. The government utilized a policy and action plan for the reintegration of Afghan returnees and IDPs, in partnership with the United Nations; however, the government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, many of them unaccompanied minors, remained limited, and it relied on the international community for assistance. Although the government banned street begging in 2008, NGOs and government offices reported large numbers of children begging and living in the streets of major cities.

Institutionalized Children: Living conditions for children in orphanages were poor. NGOs reported as many as 80 percent of children between ages four and 18 in orphanages were not orphans but from families unable to provide them with food, shelter, schooling, or all three. Children in orphanages reported mental, physical, and sexual abuse and occasionally were victims of trafficking. They did not have regular access to running water, heating in winter, indoor plumbing, health-care services, recreational facilities, or education. Security forces kept child detainees in juvenile detention centers run by the Ministry of Justice, except for a group of children arrested for national security violations who stayed at the detention facility in Parwan. NGOs reported these children were kept separate from the general population but still were at risk of radicalization.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic tensions between various groups continued to result in conflict and killings. Societal discrimination against Shia Hazaras continued along class, race, and religious lines in the form of extortion of money through illegal taxation, forced recruitment and forced labor, physical abuse, and detention. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara ANP officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country. During the year ISIS-K continued escalating attacks against Shia, predominately Hazara, communities. In August, ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall of a young Hazara couple in a predominately Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons, including 15 children, and wounding 143 others. Although the bride and groom survived, many of their friends and family (most of them women, children, and other civilians) were among the dead and wounded. Hazaras were among the causalities, but most victims were non-Hazara Shias and Sunnis. ISIS-K cited a sectarian motive for the attack.

Sikhs and Hindus faced discrimination, reporting unequal access to government jobs and harassment in school, as well as verbal and physical abuse in public places. In early March a young Sikh shopkeeper was abducted and killed in Kabul. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council of Afghanistan, there were approximately 550 members of the Sikh and Hindu community in the country, down from 900 members in 2018. According to the council, many families continued to leave the country, going to India and elsewhere due to antigovernment threats and what they perceive to be inadequate government protection.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct. Under Islamic sharia law, conviction of same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death, flogging, or imprisonment. Under Article 646 of the penal code, conviction of sex between men is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and sex between women with up to one year of imprisonment. There were reports of harassment and violence by society and police. The law does not prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent. LGBTI individuals did not have access to certain health-care services and could be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Organizations devoted to protecting the freedom of LGBTI persons remained underground because they could not legally register with the government. Even registered organizations working on health programs for men who have sex with men faced harassment and threats by the Ministry of Economy’s NGO Directorate and NDS officials. LGBTI individuals reported they continued to face arrest by security forces and discrimination, assault, and rape by society at large.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to join and form independent unions and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, and the government generally respected these rights, although it lacked enforcement tools. The law, however, provides no definition of a union or its relationship with employers and members, nor does it establish a legal method for union registration or penalties for violations. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Other than protecting the right to participate in a union, the law provides no other legal protection for union workers or workers seeking to unionize.

Although the law identifies the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Labor High Council as the highest decision-making body on labor-related issues, the lack of implementing regulations prevented the council from performing its function. There was an inspection office within the ministry, but inspectors could only advise and make suggestions. As a result the application of labor law remained limited because of a lack of central enforcement authority, implementing regulations that describe procedures and penalties for violations, funding, personnel, and political will.

The government allowed several unions to operate, but it interfered with the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees. The government issued a decree in 2016 mandating the nationalization of property belonging to several trade unions. Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were sometimes respected, but most workers were not aware of these rights. This was particularly true of workers in rural areas or the agricultural sector, who had not formed unions. In urban areas the majority of workers participated in the informal sector as day laborers in construction, where there were neither unions nor collective bargaining.

Syria

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

f. Protection of Refugees

UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to the country during the year. Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russia maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. While Russia reportedly was eager to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, the regime adopted a more cautious approach on promoting the return of refugees, reportedly due to its suspicion that many Syrian refugees supported the opposition.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The regime inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The regime provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.

Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the regime has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.

Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the regime rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.

Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The regime also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 45,000 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement. The COI reported a rise in sexual- and gender-based violence and child-protection concerns among refugees, including child labor, school dropouts, and early marriages.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but the regime did not enforce the law effectively. Rape is punishable by imprisonment and hard labor for at least 15 years (at least nine years in mitigating circumstances), which is aggravated if the perpetrator is a government official, religious official, or has legitimate or actual authority over the victim. Male rape is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The law specifically excludes spousal rape, and it reduces or suspends punishment if the rapist marries the victim. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies, NGOs, and media outlets characterized rape and sexual violence as endemic, underreported, and uncontrolled in the country (see sections 1.c. and 1.g.). Humanitarian organizations reported that women, men, and community leaders consistently identified sexual violence as a primary reason their families fled the country. The COI reported that rape and sexual violence continued to play a prominent role in the conflict and was used to terrorize and punish women, men, and children perceived as associated with the opposition, as did terrorist groups such as the HTS and ISIS. There were instances, comparatively far fewer, of armed opposition groups reportedly raping women and children. The HTS and ISIS also reportedly forced women and girls into sexual slavery.

The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, but it stipulates that men may discipline their female relatives in a form permitted by general custom. According to a May UNFPA report, violence against women and children was pervasive and increasing due to the conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men. Victims did not report the vast majority of cases. Security forces consistently treated violence against women as a social rather than a criminal matter. Observers reported that when some abused women tried to file a police report, police did not investigate their reports thoroughly, if at all, and that in other cases police officers responded by abusing the women.

In previous years several domestic violence centers operated in Damascus; the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor licensed them. Local NGOs reported, however, that many centers no longer operated due to the conflict. There were no known government-run services for women outside Damascus. According to local human rights organizations, local coordination committees and other opposition-related groups offered programs specifically for protection of women; NGOs did not integrate these programs throughout the country, and none reported reliable funding.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permits judges to reduce penalties for murder and assault if the defendant asserts an “honor” defense, which often occurred. The regime kept no official statistics on use of this defense in murder and assault cases and reportedly rarely pursued prosecution of so-called honor crimes. There were no officially reported honor killings during the year, but reporting from previous years indicated that honor killings increased since the onset of the crisis in 2011. NGOs working with refugees reported families killed some rape victims inside the country, including those raped by regime forces, for reasons of honor.

The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS permitted and committed so-called honor killings in territories under their control (see section 1.g.).

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender but does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. The regime did not enforce the law effectively. Sexual harassment was pervasive and uncontrolled. For example, a 2019 UNFPA report cited an adolescent girl from Idlib who was blackmailed and harassed by a stranger who took revealing photos of her in a changing room and threatened to share them with her family.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization by the regime, but the Free Yezidi Foundation reported that ISIS forced some Yezidi women whom they had impregnated to have abortions (see section 1.g.).

Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, nationality, inheritance, retirement, and social security laws discriminate against women. For example, if a man and a woman separately commit the same criminal act of adultery, then by law the woman’s punishment is double that of the man. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony in some cases. Under the law a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach age 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family. Personal status laws applied to Muslims are derived from sharia and are discriminatory toward women. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. Women cannot pass citizenship to their children. The regime’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, courts usually granted Muslim women half the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they refuse to provide this support, women have the right to sue.

The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.

The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered.

Women participated in public life and in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported that violence and lawlessness in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.

The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS reportedly placed similar discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in the territories they controlled. For example, the International Center for the Study of Radicalism reported in September that the HTS forced women and girls into marriage, imposed a dress code on women and girls, banned women and girls from wearing makeup, required that women and girls be accompanied by a mahram or male member of their immediate family, forbade women from speaking with unrelated men or hosting men who were not their husband, forbade widows from living alone, banned women’s centers, banned meetings with mixed male and female participation, and segregated classrooms. The HTS maintained all-female police units to support the Hisbah in enforcing these regulations, sometimes violently, among women. Summary punishments for infractions ranged from corporal punishment, such as lashing, to execution.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship solely from their father. In large areas of the country where civil registries were not functioning, authorities did not register births. The regime did not register the births of Kurdish noncitizen residents, including stateless Kurds (see section 2.g.). Failure to register resulted in deprivation of services, such as diplomas for high school-level studies, access to universities, access to formal employment, and civil documentation and protection.

Education: The regime provided free public education to citizen children from primary school through university. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 12. Enrollment, attendance, and completion rates for boys and girls generally were comparable. Noncitizen children could also attend public schools at no cost but required permission from the Ministry of Education. While Palestinians and other noncitizens, including stateless Kurds, could generally send their children to school and universities, stateless Kurds were ineligible to receive a degree documenting their academic achievement.

The conflict and widespread destruction continued to hamper the ability of children to attend school. In October UNICEF reported that 5.3 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance. UNICEF also reported that fighting destroyed or damaged or that combatants occupied one in every three schools. Approximately 1.75 million children were out of school (among more than 2.6 million Syrian children, including refugees and others in the diaspora); another 1.35 million were at risk for leaving school.

ISIS and the HTS reportedly imposed their interpretation of sharia on schools and discriminated against girls in the territories they controlled. The International Crisis Group reported in March that the HTS continued to segregate classrooms by gender, imposed their curriculum on teachers, and closed private schools and educational centers. Additionally, the STJ reported in March that the HTS Salvation Government banned any students who had previously been granted elementary and middle-school diplomas by the regime from pursuing their high school education in any schools controlled by the HTS.

Child Abuse: The law does not specifically prohibit child abuse, but it stipulates that parents may discipline their children in a form permitted by general custom. According to a 2017 UNFPA report, violence against children, especially girls, was pervasive and increasing due to the conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men.

NGOs reported extensively on reports of regime and proregime forces, as well as the HTS and ISIS, sexually assaulting, torturing, detaining, killing, and otherwise abusing children (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and 1.g.). The HTS and ISIS subjected children to extremely harsh punishment, including execution, in the territories they controlled.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. A boy as young as 15 or a girl as young as 13 may marry if a judge deems both parties willing and “physically mature” and if the fathers or grandfathers of both parties’ consent. Early and forced marriages were common. CARE reported in March that young women were increasingly vulnerable to forced marriage due to the extreme financial hardships placed upon families while the conflict progressed into its eighth year.

Many families reportedly arranged marriages for girls, including at younger ages than typically occurred prior to the start of the conflict, believing it would protect them and ease the financial burden on the family.

There were instances of early and forced marriage of girls to members of regime, proregime, and armed opposition forces.

In previous years ISIS abducted and sexually exploited Yezidi girls in Iraq and transported them to Syria for rape and forced marriage; many of those Yezidi women and girls remained captive during the year (see section 1.g. and section 6, Women). Even after the territorial defeat of ISIS, the Free Yezidi Foundation reported that Yezidi women and children remained with ISIS-affiliated families in detention camps due to the intense trauma from their treatment under ISIS and out of fear. From 2014 onwards, ISIS began to forcibly marry Sunni (also a minority) girls and women living in territories under its control. Some of those forced to marry ISIS members were adults, including widows, but the vast majority of cases the COI documented revealed that girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were victims of forced marriage. Many women and girls reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years. The HTS also reportedly forced Druze and other minority women and girls into marriage as well as Sunni women and girls.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law stipulates penalties for those found guilty of certain forms of child abuse associated with trafficking crimes, including kidnapping and forced prostitution, both of which carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. The law considers child pornography a trafficking crime, but the punishment for child pornography was set at the local level with “appropriate penalties.” It was also unclear if there had been any prosecutions for child pornography or if authorities enforced the law.

The age of sexual consent by law is 15 with no close-in-age exemption. Premarital sex is illegal, but observers reported authorities did not enforce the law. Rape of a child younger than 15 is punishable by not less than 21 years’ imprisonment and hard labor. There were no reports of regime prosecution of child rape cases.

Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: There was a large population of IDP children and some refugee children as well. These children reportedly experienced increased vulnerability to abuses, including by armed forces (see sections 1.c., 1.g., 2.e., and 2.f.).

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The regime actively restricted national and ethnic minorities from conducting traditional, religious, and cultural activities. The Kurdish population–citizens and noncitizens–faced official and societal discrimination and repression as well as regime-sponsored violence. Regime and proregime forces, as well as ISIS and armed opposition forces such as the Turkish-backed FSA, reportedly arrested, detained, tortured, killed, and otherwise abused numerous Kurdish activists and individuals as well as members of the SDF during the year (see section 1.g.).

The regime continued to limit the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted publication in Kurdish of books and other materials, Kurdish cultural expression, and at times the celebration of Kurdish festivals.

The Alawite community, to which Bashar Assad belongs, enjoyed privileged status throughout the regime and dominated the state security apparatus and military leadership. Nevertheless, the regime reportedly also targeted Alawite opposition activists for arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, and killing. Extremist opposition groups targeted Alawite communities on several occasions for their perceived proregime stance.

In March the COI reported that armed opposition groups detained hundreds of women and girls belonging to minority groups, particularly Alawites, and used them as bargaining chips for initiating prisoner swaps with regime and proregime forces.

The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS violently oppressed and discriminated against all non-Sunni Arab ethnic minorities in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.).

HRW documented multiple instances of Syrian opposition forces “discriminating on ethnic grounds.” HRW reported that TSOs participating in Turkey’s military offensive into northeast Syria “refused to allow the return of Kurdish families displaced by Turkish military operations and looted and unlawfully appropriated or occupied their property.” HRW reported opposition forces systematically blocked Kurdish IDP returns while permitting some Arab IDP returns.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, defined as “carnal relations against the order of nature” and punishable by imprisonment up to three years. In previous years police used this charge to prosecute LGBTI individuals. There were no reports of prosecutions under the law during the year, but NGO reports indicated the regime arrested dozens of LGBTI persons since 2011 on charges such as abusing social values; selling, buying, or consuming illegal drugs; and organizing and promoting “obscene” parties. Local media and NGOs reported instances in which regime and proregime forces used accusations of homosexuality as a pretext to detain, arrest, torture, and kill civilians. The frequency of such instances was difficult to determine, since police rarely reported their rationale for arrests.

Although there were no known domestic NGOs focused on LGBTI matters, there were several online networking communities, including an online LGBTI-oriented magazine. Human rights activists reported there was overt societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society.

The terrorist HTS regularly detained, tortured, and killed LGBTI individuals in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.). For example, in August The Guardian newspaper reported that a Syrian transgender woman was arrested by HTS officers barely 110 yards across the border into Idlib after being deported by Turkish authorities. According to a fellow refugee deported on the same bus, the HTS officers went through her cellular telephone, humiliating her about pictures they found. The woman has not been heard from since she was seen forced into the back of a taxi, a bag tied over her head.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Yezidis, Druze, Christians, Shia, and other religious minorities were subject to violence and discrimination by ISIS, the HTS, and other extremist groups (see section 1.g.).

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

While the law provides for the right to form and join unions, conduct legal labor strikes, and bargain collectively, there were excessive restrictions on these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but also allows employers to fire workers at will.

The law requires all unions to belong to the regime-affiliated General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). The law prohibits strikes involving more than 20 workers in certain sectors, including transportation and telecommunications, or strike actions resembling public demonstrations. Restrictions on freedom of association also included fines and prison sentences for illegal strikes.

The law requires that government representatives be part of the bargaining process in the public sector, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor could object to, and refuse to register, any agreements concluded. The law and relevant labor protections do not apply to workers covered under civil service provisions, under which employees neither have nor are considered to need collective bargaining rights. The law does not apply to foreign domestic servants, agricultural workers, NGO employees, or informal-sector workers. There are no legal protections for self-employed workers, although they constituted a significant proportion of the total workforce. Foreign workers may join the syndicate representing their profession but may not run for elected positions, with the exception of Palestinians, who may serve as elected officials in unions.

The regime did not enforce applicable laws effectively or make any serious attempt to do so during the year. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

The Baath Party dominated the GFTU, and Baath Party doctrine stipulates that its quasi-official constituent unions protect worker rights. The GFTU president was a senior member of the Baath Party, and he and his deputy could attend cabinet meetings on economic affairs. In previous years the GFTU controlled most aspects of union activity, including which sectors or industries could have unions. It also had the power to disband union governing bodies. Union elections were generally free of direct GFTU interference, but successful campaigns usually required membership in the Baath Party. Because of the GFTU’s close ties to the regime, the right to bargain collectively did not exist in practical terms. Although the law provides for collective bargaining in the private sector, past regime repression dissuaded most workers from exercising this right.

There was little information available on employer practices with regard to antiunion discrimination. Unrest and economic decline during the year caused many workers to lose their private-sector jobs, giving employers the stronger hand in disputes.

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