2 years in, activists warn backsliding for women, girls continues unabated in Taliban’s Afghanistan


Nearly two years after Kabul fell to the Taliban, activists warn that human rights for women and girls continue to plummet in Afghanistan. They’re pushing for democracies like Canada to adopt a tougher posture with the regime. 

“The Taliban are not going to be different just if the government is issuing strongly worded statements,” said Friba Rezayee, the executive director of Women Leaders of Tomorrow, a Vancouver-based organization that advocates for Afghan womens’ education and empowerment.

“What’s happening in Afghanistan now is that the Taliban have a monopoly over violence. They want to keep the public and the people uneducated and ignorant so that they can promote their ideology,” Rezayee said.

The hardline fundamentalist group seized control in August 2021, toppling the Western-backed government just days after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan following 20 years of war. The Taliban has since imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law, despite early promises to the international community to respect some women’s rights.

Millions in the country also remain in need of humanitarian assistance, with an estimated 64 per cent of households unable to meet basic needs, according to UNICEF.

A large group of girls wearing headscarves sit at desks and on the floor in a makeshift classroom.
Afghan girls attend a class in an underground school in Kabul on July 28, 2022. Ahead of the second anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Canadian groups are pushing Ottawa to better protect the gains in girls’ education. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

Earlier this month, BBC Persian reported that girls as young as 10 are now being banned from school in some Afghan provinces, meaning education for women would now be off the table starting as early as Grade 3, though the Taliban issued a denial.

Girls were effectively banned from attending secondary school just weeks after the Taliban took over, at first insisting the move was temporary. Female students were then suspended from Afghanistan’s universities last December.

“It hasn’t been fully applied is our understanding,” Sarah Keeler, the advocacy manager for Canadian Women For Women in Afghanistan, another Canadian aid organization, said of the new ban.

However, the group has heard from sources across the country that such a ban has started in different provinces, she said, so it’s “happening on a widespread scale.” 

Calls to recognize gender apartheid

Keeler’s organization is supporting a push to brand the current situation in Afghanistan as “gender apartheid” — an international effort launched by Afghan and Iranian women last March on International Women’s Day. 

“We want to see it recognized as a potential crime against humanity, and then there’s an opportunity for this to be taken to the International Criminal Court,” said Keeler.

An expert report to the United Nations Human Rights Council published last month on Afghanistan found restrictions on women and girls in the country could amount to gender apartheid.

WATCH | How Canadian educators are giving Afghan women and girls access to school: 

Breaking the law to educate Afghanistan’s girls

Despite being illegal under the Taliban, Canadian educators and organizations are giving women and children in Afghanistan access to school. For those willing to brave the threat from the Taliban, it’s a lifeline to a better future.

Now, both Canadian groups are calling on Ottawa to work directly with Afghans on the ground to understand their needs and get them the necessary resources.

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan said the federal government could do more to provide alternate means for education for women and girls, including help setting up digital learning opportunities.

Rezayee said Canada could have diplomatic presence on the ground in Afghanistan, while avoiding any recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate government, just as a way to have a closer presence to the Afghan people.

Her organization is also working to help on the education front. Some 13 Afghan women and girls have so far completed a full year of studies in Canada, thanks to the efforts of Women Leaders of Tomorrow, arriving here on scholarships secured through the group.

Torpikai Sultani (left) and her sister Zarmina Sultani (right) pose with Friba Rezayee (middle).
Torpikai Sultani, left, and Zarmina Sultani, right, pose with Friba Rezayee, centre. Rezayee’s group, Women Leaders of Tomorrow, helped the two young women move to Canada from Afghanistan on scholarships to continue their higher education. Rezayee said the Canadian government should impose tougher sanctions on Afghanistan, in order to get it to reverse some of the backsliding of women’s and girls’ rights over the last two years. (Submitted by Friba Rezayee )

Rezayee welcomed two more at the Vancouver International Airport just last Friday — sisters Zarmina and Torpikai Sultani.

Torpikai, 19, told CBC News she wants to become a doctor, while 18-year-old Zarmina says she aspires to be an engineer. Zarmina added that she wants to be a model for Afghan women and girls. “Girls can do whatever they want. They can be free.”

But that is an increasingly harder proposition in Afghanistan, said Rezayee.

“What the Canadian government can actually do is to put strict conditions on the aids that are going to Afghanistan,” she said. “The Taliban are completely reliant on international aid and international support now because they have destroyed the economy in the country.”

Canada’s response

The Canadian government shut its embassy down indefinitely in August 2021 after Kabul’s fall, along with other Western countries.

Instead, Canada maintains some contact through David Sproule, the country’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. As CBC News revealed last year, Sproule has spoken to the Taliban more than a dozen times over the past two years, during meetings in Doha, Qatar. 

Canada's Special Representative to Afghanistan, David Sproule, stands to the right of CAF troops in his days as ambassador in February 28, 2006.
David Sproule, right, is a former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan who is now Canada’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, based in Doha, Qatar. He is shown here on Feb. 28, 2006, during a change of command ceremony in southern Afghanistan. (The Canadian Press)

“In his engagements, the special representative underscores the need for the Taliban to live up to Afghanistan’s international obligations to uphold the human rights of all Afghans and reverse discriminatory policies targeting women and girls,” Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said in a statement last week.

GAC also said Canada wants to work with international partners to draw attention to the Taliban’s violations of human rights and “advocate for a strong international response to these violations.”

However, the statement fell short of specifics on the response, and did not directly address CBC’s questions about increasing sanctions.

Last year, Canada allocated more than $143 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and the region.

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