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What it's like being a woman in Afghanistan today: 'death in slow motion'

An Afghan woman walks with a child in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2022. A newly released report from Amnesty International, "Death in Slow Motion," focuses on a range of issues affecting girls and women. Foremost among them are child and forced marriage.
WAKIL KOHSAR
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Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images
An Afghan woman walks with a child in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2022. A newly released report from Amnesty International, "Death in Slow Motion," focuses on a range of issues affecting girls and women. Foremost among them are child and forced marriage.

On early Monday morning, just before the break of dawn, a 23-year-old Afghan journalist packed her bags, said quiet goodbyes to her family and left her home in a carefully mapped and cautiously executed plan.

"My heart was beating so fast for the whole journey, till I reached a safe place. I was escaping the Taliban's brutality and I was afraid they would capture me," she shared. The journalist asked to be identified only with her initials – F.J. – because her family is still under Taliban surveillance inside Afghanistan.

She was escaping threats of a forced marriage with a local Taliban fighter in her district in northern Afghanistan and relocating to another country. "One of their commanders who was only being referred to as 'maulavi' [a title given to a religious leader] demanded that my parents marry me to him. They wanted to control and punish me for my work against them," F.J. said, referring to her reporting critical of the Taliban's treatment of women and minorities.

"When I refused, they were offended and at first threatened to kill my parents, but then they threaten to kidnap me," she told NPR, speaking from the location where she is in hiding.

F.J. said that she knows girls from her community, including one of her neighbors, who had been kidnapped and forced into marriage with Taliban fighters in the past year.

Report: Women are trapped in a web of restrictions

A new report released by Amnesty International on Tuesday, titled "Death in Slow Motion: Women and Girls Under Taliban," corroborates her claim, stating that "the rates of child, early and forced marriage in Afghanistan appear to have surged" under the Taliban rule.

The report, which included interviews with 90 Afghan women and 11 girls across 20 of the 34 Afghan provinces, details "a web of interrelated restrictions and prohibitions" that left many Afghan women trapped, with no agency over their work, their education, their freedom to move about, their clothing – and marriage options.

The report also covers a range of issues affecting Afghan women living under the Taliban, including restrictions on education, employment, clothing and even movement. The report also draws attention to the lack of legal avenues for to women to address gender-based violence and protection of their rights following the collapse of existing institutions systems and safeguards since the Taliban takeover.

"Our report documents, how in less than a year, the rights of women and girls have been decimated by the Taliban," said Nicolette Waldman, researcher at Amnesty International and one of the authors of the report.

Waldman said that report was "harrowing to research."

"What really came through during the research was how all of the restrictions on women and girls are so interconnected. I would start out documenting a case of forced marriage and then realize I was also documenting a violation of the right to work or to move or any number of other violations that just one woman would be facing in her daily life," she said, adding the Taliban's restrictions are like a "spider web, trapping and entangling women and girls."

Child marriages and forced marriages

The number of child and forced marriages is a critical part of the newly released document.

Rates were already exceptionally high in the country even before the Taliban takeover, with nearly 28% of Afghan women and girls between the ages of 15 to 49 years were married before age 18, according to UNICEF.

While there has not been a nationwide assessment to determine trends in early and forced marriages, the report stated that there are several indicators pointing to increasing rates, including research from human rights and humanitarian organizations such as UNICEF and the Danish Refugee Council. "During its research, Amnesty International received several other reports from protection actors and local activists that child, early and forced marriage rates had spiked in their areas, whether rural or urban," the report stated.

Often these marriages are a result of the economic and humanitarian crises and widespread starvation, forcing many families to marry their daughters younger in exchange for the "bride price" that can help sustain them.

"In Afghanistan, it's a perfect storm for child marriage. You have a patriarchal government, war, poverty, drought, girls out of school – with all of these factors combined ... we knew child marriage was going to go through the roof," Stephanie Sinclair, director at Too Young To Wed, an organization working to prevent forced and child marriages, told Amnesty International.

The report documents two cases of forced marriages to Taliban fighters and commanders and received credible reports of several other cases.

"What we read in these reports is only a fraction of the crimes the Taliban are committing against the women in Afghanistan, who are living their darkest hours," Huda Khamosh, an Afghan activist-in-exile who was arrested by the Taliban for protesting, earlier this year, told NPR. "It is difficult to conduct thorough investigations under Taliban, We hear of many cases of women committing suicide to escape the Taliban's brutality," she said, referring to reports of women's in Afghan media.

The Amnesty report also interviewed family members of girls and women who said the Taliban used their positions of influence and power to force a marriage — despite the Taliban's decree banning forced marriages. A decree issued by Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhunzada in December 2021 stated: "Both men and women are equal and no one can force women to marry by coercion or pressure."

Former humanitarian worker Mohammad Farooq shared a story he knew of from his community. "About eight months ago, the Taliban district governor, who must be close to 45 years of age, married one of the young girls from the district who was 17 years old. She was against the marriage, but the Taliban are powerful and have full control of the area. They also paid her father one million Afghani." Farooq requested his location be kept discreet because revealing his location would put him at risk.

Farooq added that he knows of 10 such forced marriages in his district alone in the past year.

Not blaming the families of the brides

However, he refuses to judge the families harshly. "The kind of pressure they face from the Taliban is unimaginable. The Taliban not only have power but are also not against using force if they need to. Families don't have the choice to say no," he explained, adding that there were no mechanisms left to complain. "The religious scholars, judges and village elders who could have previously intervened are also afraid of the Taliban. So then who can a woman being forced to marry approach?"

F.J., the journalist who fled her home, agrees with his point of view. "They [the Taliban fighters forcing girls to marry] had the support of their leadership because they were so confident when they do this [threats and kidnapping].

"I was lucky to escape for now to a neighboring country, but my life is in limbo as I could be deported anytime. But there here are so many women I know who had to marry Taliban because it is not easy to leave if you are a woman," she said.

A call for change, worries about the future

Waldman urged Taliban to "urgently change course" while asking the international community to intervene. "The international community should develop and implement a coordinated strategy that pressures the Taliban to do this — and they must send a clear message to the Taliban that their discriminatory policies against women and girls will never be accepted. They should impose consequences on the Taliban for their conduct, including targeted sanctions or travel bans applied through a U.N. Security Council Resolution that could influence the Taliban without harming the Afghan people," she recommended.

Meanwhile, F.J. remains deeply concerned about the safety of her family, who remain under Taliban's surveillance. "They know I have left and they are harassing and shaming my family because of it. I am so afraid they will hurt my parents or kill them for supporting my freedom," she added, choking back tears.

"I am in a very bad mental state; I used to be the voice of Afghan women, and overnight, I became voiceless, with no rights, and no one to fight and defend my rights. I wish no women has to ever go through what I experienced," she added.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

Hikmat Noori is an Afghan journalist who covers the intersection of culture and politics in South Asia. He tweets at @noori1st

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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