Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Implementation and awareness of a government decree regarding violence against women remained a serious problem under the pre-August 15 government. The decree criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including rape, battery or beating, forced marriage, humiliation, intimidation, and deprivation of inheritance. The law criminalizes rape against 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 are present. If the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for a death sentence for the perpetrator. The law criminalizes statutory rape and 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. Pre-August 15 government authorities did not always enforce these laws, although the government was implementing limited aspects of the decree, including through dedicated prosecution units. Women and girls with disabilities were at increased risk for sexual abuse.
Prosecutors and judges in rural areas were frequently unaware of the decree 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 survivors faced stringent or violent societal reprisal, ranging from imprisonment to extrajudicial killing.
The law criminalizes forced gynecological exams, which acted as “virginity tests,” except when conducted pursuant to a court order or with the consent of the subject. Awareness and enforcement of the restrictions on forced gynecological exams remained limited. There were reports police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order the exams in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Pre-August 15 government doctors, frequently men, conducted these exams, often without consent. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subjected to the exams.
The law for the pre-August 15 government criminalized assault, and courts convicted domestic abusers under this provision, as well as under the “injury and disability” and beating provisions in the relevant decree. According to NGO reports, millions of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, in-laws, and other individuals. The AIHRC announced that of 3,477 cases of violence against women recorded with its organization in the first 10 months of 2020, 95.8 percent of cases involved a family-member perpetrator and that the home environment was the most dangerous place for women in the country. State institutions, including police and judicial systems, failed to adequately address such abuse. Lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced women to spend more time at home, reportedly resulting in increased incidence of domestic violence as well as additional stress on already limited victim-support systems. One such incident included a man from Paktika Province who cut off his wife’s nose with a kitchen knife in May. The woman, who regularly faced physical abuse by her husband, was reportedly seeking to leave the abusive relationship when her husband attacked her.
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, a preference for mediation, sympathy toward perpetrators, corruption, and family or tribal pressure. According to an HRW report published in August, there were dedicated prosecution units in all 34 provinces as of March and specialized courts – at least in name – with female judges in 15 provinces, and dedicated court divisions expanded to operate at the primary and appellate levels in all 34 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, under the pre-August 15 administration. 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 to the perpetrator. Cultural stigmatization of women who spent even one night outside the home also prevented women from seeking services that may bring “shame” to herself or her family.
At times, women in need of protection ended up in prison, either because their community lacked a protection center or because “running away” was interpreted as a moral crime. Adultery, fornication, and kidnapping are criminal offenses. Running away from home is not a crime under the law, and both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office issued directives to this effect, but some local authorities continued to detain women and girls for running away from home or “attempted zina.” The pre-August 15 government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as nongovernmental entities, sometimes arranged marriages for women who could not return to their families (see also section 6, Children, Child, Early, and Forced Marriage).
On September 19, Taliban gunmen entered a women’s shelter in Kabul by force, interrogated staff and residents for several hours and forced the head of the shelter to sign a letter promising not to allow the residents to leave without Taliban permission. The Taliban told the shelter operator they would return married shelter residents to their abusers and marry the single residents to Taliban soldiers.
Additionally, sources in September reported the Taliban were conducting “audits” of women’s shelters and women’s rights organizations, including those that provided protection services. These audits were enforced with intimidation through the brandishing of weapons and threats of violence. Equipment, including computers, paper files, and other documentation, was confiscated, and staff reported being aggressively questioned regarding their activities and possible association with the United States. Essential service providers either reduced or ceased their services altogether, citing fear of putting battered women, an already vulnerable demographic, at greater risk of violence and harm.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Under the 2004 constitution, 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 reported instances of baad were still practiced, often in rural areas. The practice of exchanging brides between families was not criminalized and remained widespread. “Honor killings” continued throughout the year.
Sexual Harassment: The law under the pre-August 15 government criminalized all forms of harassment of women and children, including physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual harassment. 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 under the pre-August 15 government remained limited and ineffective. Media reported that the number of women reporting sexual harassment increased compared with prior years, although some speculated this could be an increased willingness to report cases rather than an increase in the incidence 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.
Prior to the August 15 Taliban takeover, businesswomen faced a myriad of challenges from the “traditional” nature of society and its norms regarding 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.
After the Taliban takeover, most women-led businesses suspended operations due to the ongoing liquidity crisis and fear of violating Taliban edicts against women in the marketplace.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. Under the pre-August 15 government, married couples had the legal right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. The Family Law (2019), which was in effect by promulgation of a presidential proclamation (although parliament never passed it), outlines individuals’ rights to reproductive health. There were no recent, reliable data regarding reproductive rights. According to the 2015 Afghanistan Demographic and Health Survey, only 5 percent of women made independent decisions concerning their own health care, while 44 percent reported that their husbands made the decisions for them.
According to UNICEF, more than 50 percent of girls in the country started their period without knowing what to expect or understanding why it was happening, and 30 percent of female students in the country were absent during menstruation because schools did not have adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities.
Having a child outside of wedlock is a crime according to the pre-August 15 government’s penal code and is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment for both men and women. Mothers faced severe social stigma for having a child out of wedlock, even when the pregnancy was a result of rape. Abortion or ending a pregnancy was classified as a crime under the law and was punishable by three months’ to one year’s imprisonment.
Women must obtain their husband’s consent to use contraception under the law. Barriers impacting reproductive health care or obstetrical care included many men preventing their wives from receiving care from male doctors or from having a male doctor in attendance at the birth of a child. Sources in October reported continued availability of contraceptives after the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
Persons with disabilities faced increased barriers to reproductive health resources as a result of decreased access to transportation, education, and social support. LGBTQI+ persons, already disadvantaged prior to August 15, faced further barriers to accessing reproductive health resources after the Taliban takeover. The already fragile community, which provided some resources to its members, largely disintegrated as members either fled the country or went into deep hiding. Widespread discrimination and abuse prevented most members from seeking reproductive or sexual-health assistance from all but the most trusted confidants.
Families and individuals in cities generally had better access to information than did those living in rural areas. According to the United Nations, the rate of contraceptive use among married women was 35 percent for those living in urban areas compared with 19 percent in rural areas. According to the pre-August 15 government’s Ministry of Public Health, while there was wide variance, most clinics offered some type of modern family planning method.
The World Health Organization reported that the country had 638 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017 (the last year of reported data). A survey conducted by the Central Statistics Organization in the provinces of Bamyan, Daikundi, Ghor, Kabul, Kapisa, and Parwan concluded that many factors contributed to the high maternal death rate, including early pregnancy, narrowly spaced births, and high fertility. Some societal norms, such as a tradition of home births and the requirement for some women to be accompanied by a male relative to leave their homes, led to negative reproductive health outcomes, including inadequate prenatal, postpartum, and emergency obstetric care. Access to maternal health care services was constrained by the limited number of female health practitioners, including an insufficient number of skilled birth attendants. Additionally, the conflict environment and other security concerns limited women’s safe access to health services of any kind.
Since their takeover, the Taliban permitted women to continue their roles as health practitioners, but many women were afraid to return to work due to safety and security concerns related to the Taliban’s stated policies restricting women in the workplace. After August 15, the ever-smaller number of qualified female health practitioners steeply increased the risk of poor health outcomes for women.
Discrimination: Prior to the Taliban’s takeover, women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported they experienced discrimination within the justice 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. Women do not have equal legal rights, compared to men, to inherit assets as a surviving spouse, and daughters do not have equal rights, compared to sons, to inherit assets from their parents. By law women may not unilaterally divorce their husbands but must obtain their husband’s consent to the divorce, although men may unilaterally divorce their wives. Many women petitioned instead for legal separation. According to the family court in Kabul, during the year women petitioned for legal separation twice as frequently as in the previous year.
Prosecutors and judges in some provinces continued to be reluctant to use the decree related to domestic violence, and judges sometimes replaced those charges with others based on other legal provisions.
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.
After August 15, the Taliban prohibited most female government employees from working, although the Taliban claimed they continued to pay their salaries. Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) executives sought meetings with the Taliban-controlled Ministry of Economy after the takeover to get clarity on whether the Taliban would allow the estimated 57,000 women-led private businesses in the country to remain open. The AWCCI stated they failed to get a formal meeting with high-level Taliban decisionmakers but were assured informally that women would be allowed to work “if that work conformed with Islamic law.”
Prior to August 15, in the Taliban-controlled areas of the country many women and girls could not decide whom they would marry or at what age, or object to beatings by their husbands. In Jowzjan’s Darzab district, a Taliban commander raped and killed a 16-year-old girl when the family refused to allow her to marry a Taliban fighter.
On April 28, the Taliban published an article, “Feminism as a Colonial Tool,” on its website, accusing the West of using feminism to justify its “invasion, subjugation and bullying of Muslims.” The article asserted the “man-made” concept of women’s rights has “destructive effects on human society” and that women’s rights must be defined by Islam.
Birth Registration: A citizen father transmits citizenship to his child. Birth in the country or to a citizen mother alone does not bestow citizenship. Adoption is not legally recognized.
Education: Under the pre-August 15 government, education was mandatory up to the lower secondary level (six years in primary school and three years in lower secondary), and the law provides for free education up to and including the college level. UNICEF reported that approximately 3.7 million children, 60 percent of them girls, were not in school due to discrimination, poverty, lack of access, continuing conflict, and restrictions on girls’ access to education in Taliban-controlled areas, among other reasons. Under the pre-August 15 government, only an estimated 16 percent of the country’s schools were for girls, and many of them lacked proper sanitation facilities. 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.
An education director in Jawzjan Province said in March that Taliban militants stopped an estimated 20,000 female students from studying beyond sixth grade. Even before their takeover of Kabul, in Taliban-controlled districts within the provinces of Kunar, Helmand, Logar, and Zabul, the Taliban had largely prohibited women and girls from attending school as provincial education officials attempted in vain to negotiate with the Taliban for girls to have access to education.
Violent attacks on schoolchildren, particularly girls, hindered their 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. In February Taliban militants set fire to a girls’ school in Takhar Province, burning all equipment, books, and documents.
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.
Following their takeover, the Taliban severely restricted or prohibited female education across all age levels, citing a need to ensure proper facilities were in place for segregated education in line with the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia.
The Taliban’s lack of a clear education policy regarding women’s ability to teach and girls’ ability to attend schools, combined with nonpayment of teachers’ salaries, led to low enrollment rates even where schools were open.
In September the Taliban stated that girls would be able to go to school in line with Islamic law, without further clarifying how it would respect their access to education. According to UNICEF, the Taliban instructed primary schools in late August to reopen for both girls and boys.
On September 18, the new Taliban ministry of education issued a statement resuming secondary education for boys but gave no indication as to when girls might return to classes. As of December schools in nine of the country’s 34 provinces – Balkh, Jawzjan, Samangan, Kunduz, Urozgan, Ghazni, Faryab, Zabul, and Herat – had allowed girls to attend secondary school before closing for the winter break, according to UNICEF and other reports. In December the Taliban asserted that this number had grown to 12 provinces and pledged that all girls could return to school in March 2022 after the break.
As of December all public universities remained closed. Several private, all-female universities reopened for fall classes in October.
Taliban leaders stated they were committed to allowing girls and women access to education through the postgraduate level, although only in accordance with their interpretation of sharia and within the confines of Afghan culture, which includes segregation of genders and strict behavioral and dress codes.
On November 16, the head of the so-called Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated there was no theological basis in Islam for preventing girls and women from having access to all levels of education. Other Taliban representatives expressed the group’s intent to provide educational access at all levels to women and girls. At year’s end many Afghan girls remained excluded from the educational system.
Child Abuse: The law criminalizes child abuse and neglect. The penalty for beating, or physically or mentally disciplining or mistreating a child ranges from a fine of 10,000 afghanis ($130) to one year in prison if 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 fine of 60,000 to 120,000 afghanis ($780 to $1,560).
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, which deterred child victims from reporting their claims.
In 2020, the most recent year data were available, there was an uptick in arrests, prosecutions and prison sentences given to perpetrators of bacha bazi, including members of the military and security forces. Kandahar’s governor sent seven members of the ANP suspected of sexually abusing and killing a 13-year-old boy in Kandahar to trial in Kabul. One of the seven was given the death penalty, and the others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges including rape, as well as bacha bazi (two of them received sentences of 30 years’ imprisonment and the other four were sentenced to 24 years’ imprisonment).
Despite consistent reports of bacha bazi perpetrated by the Afghan National Army, the ANP, and ALP officials, the government has only once (in September 2020) prosecuted officials for bacha bazi. The government denied that security forces recruited or used child soldiers. Some victims reported that authorities perpetuated abuse in exchange for pursuing their cases, and authorities continued to arrest, detain, and penalize survivors.
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.
There were reports some members of the pre-August 15 government military and progovernment groups sexually abused and exploited young girls and boys. UNAMA reported children continued to be subjected to sexual violence by parties to the conflict at an “alarming rate.” According to media and NGO reports, many of these cases went unreported or were referred to traditional mediation, which often allowed perpetrators to reoffend. There were press reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers and school officials, particularly against boys. The pre-August 15 government claimed families rarely pressed charges due to shame and doubts that the judicial system would respond.
On May 4, the pre-August 15 government’s Minister of Justice and head of the Trafficking in Persons High Commission, Fazil Ahmad Mannawi, shared the pre-August 15 government’s statistics on trafficking in persons for the year 2020: He reported that the ministry arrested 70 suspects, the Attorney General’s Office launched investigations of 50 suspects, and courts were reviewing 235 cases of trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants, and bacha bazi at the end of 2020. Six hundred victims were provided with medical, psychological, and educational services in 2020. The pre-August 15 government held more than 200 trafficking-in-persons awareness-training sessions for more than 8,000 citizens, government officials, and ANDSF personnel. There was an increase of bacha bazi cases investigated, prosecuted, and convicted.
The pre-August 15 government took steps to discourage the abuse of boys and to prosecute or punish those involved. The pre-August 15 government’s law criminalizes bacha bazi as a separate crime and builds on a 2017 trafficking-in-persons law that includes provisions criminalizing behaviors associated with the sexual exploitation of children. The law details the punishment for authorities of security forces involved in bacha bazi with an average punishment of up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Although no police officer had ever been prosecuted for bacha bazi, eight officers were arrested during the year in connection with bacha bazi incidents and charged with “moral crimes,” sodomy, or other crimes.
The pre-August 15 government’s Ministry of Interior operated CPUs throughout the country to prevent the recruitment of children into the ANP, although the CPUs played a limited oversight role in recruiting. Nevertheless, recruitment of children continued, including into the ANP, the ALP, progovernment forces, and the Taliban. Additionally, the government did not have sufficient resources to reintegrate children into their families once they had been identified by the CPUs.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Despite a law under the pre-August 15 government 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. A 2017 UNICEF study found that 28 percent of women were married by age 18. 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 age 16 (or 15 with the permission of her parents or a court), but only a small fraction of the population had birth certificates.
After the August takeover by the Taliban, due to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country, widespread reports surfaced suggesting that some families were selling their young children, usually daughters for early marriage, to afford food.
Societal pressures and the Taliban practice of arranging marriages for widows forced women into unwanted marriages. HRW conducted telephone interviews with residents in Herat in September and found that women in Taliban-controlled areas increasingly felt pressured to marry for their own safety in view of restrictions upon their movements and activities imposed by the Taliban.
On August 13, the Taliban entered Herat, seizing government offices and the police station. A Taliban fighter reportedly threatened to kill a widowed mother of five if she did not marry him, and she was forced to do so in September with the consent of a mullah. She has said that her life is a nightmare and “it is like he is raping me every night.”
On December 3, Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhunzada announced a public decree banning the forced marriage of women. The decree set out the rules governing marriage and property for women, stating that women should not be forced into marriage and widows should have a share in their late husband’s property. The decree mandated that courts should consider these rules when making decisions, and religious affairs and information ministries should promote these rights.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The pre-August 15 government criminalized sexual exploitation of children. In addition to outlawing the practice of bacha bazi, a practice common in parts of the country in which men exploit boys for social and sexual entertainment, the law 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.” In the case of an adult female having intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, the law considers the child’s consent invalid, and the woman may be prosecuted for adultery. The law prescribes a penalty of 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for forcing an underage girl into commercial sexual exploitation. Taking possession of a child for sexual exploitation or production of pornographic films or images constitutes trafficking in persons under the Trafficking in Persons law regardless of whether other elements of the crime are present.
Displaced Children: NGOs and government offices reported high numbers of returnee families and their children in border areas, specifically Herat and Jalalabad. The pre-August 15 government attempted to follow its 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, the country’s primary military prison. 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