How life has changed in Afghanistan one year on from Taliban return, from women’s rights to freedom of speech

One year since the chaotic end to America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, the lives of many of its citizens plunged into darkness

How life has changed in Afghanistan one year on from Taliban return, from women’s rights to freedom of speech

An Afghan woman walks with a child in Kandahar. Since their takeover a year ago, the Taliban has squeezed Afghan women out of public life (Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP)

By Taz Ali

The chaotic end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan saw the Taliban storm back to power and in the 12 months since, life for many ordinary Afghans has changed beyond recognition.

Girls have been denied an education, women have been forced out of work, and the lack of international aid has further impaired the country.

The feared Taliban was known for its brutal crackdown on rights and freedoms in its previous rule during the late 1990s, but after it returned to power on 15 August last year, it vowed to govern differently.

Nonetheless, thousands of terrified Afghans rushed to the airport in Kabul to flee the country, and those who were unable to board the last remaining evacuation flights were left with no choice but to remain and face an uncertain future.

Here is how life has changed for people in Afghanistan during the past 12 months:

An Afghan woman walks with schoolgirls going to their primary school in Kabul (Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP)

Rights for women and girls

Taliban rule has had a devastating effect on women and girls, who have become all but invisible in public life.

Soon after taking over the country, the Taliban’s all-male government abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which is tasked with enforcing the militant group’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

Girls are barred from secondary and higher education, and the school curriculum was altered to focus more on religious studies.

Women are banned from government jobs, sport, and travelling outside their city without a mahram (a male family member).

In November last year, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue banned television dramas that included female actors and told women news presenters to wear “Islamic hijab” without defining what that meant.

Months later, women were ordered to cover themselves fully, including their faces, when out in public – failing to do so could mean their father or closest male relative would be imprisoned or could lose their government job.

Women have been allowed to work in certain places such as primary schools and in healthcare, but many are not being paid due to the worsening economic crisis.

“The crisis for women and girls in Afghanistan is escalating with no end in sight,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“Taliban policies have rapidly turned many women and girls into virtual prisoners in their homes, depriving the country of one of its most precious resources: the skills and talents of the female half of the population.”

An Afghan woman with her child sit inside the cholera ward of Mirwais hospital in Kandahar (Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP)

Economic and humanitarian crisis

Most international aid to Afghanistan was suspended after August 2021, and the Afghan government’s reserves – mostly held in US banks – were frozen.

This has led to the near collapse of the Afghan economy and banking system, plunging the country into a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan relied heavily on international aid for food and basic services, accounting for 75 per cent of public spending in 2019, according to the World Bank.

Now, 18.9 million people – nearly half of the population – are estimated to be suffering from food insecurity, the World Food Programme found.

The World Health Organisation reported that tens of thousands of children are being admitted for emergency medical care for acute malnutrition every month, while many others in remote areas who are unable to reach help have starved to death.

According to the UN’s 2022 humanitarian response plan for Afghanistan, the country requires a total of $44bn in aid this year but has so far received 40 per cent of it.

A deadly 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit south-eastern Afghanistan in June, killing at least 1,150 people according to some estimates. The devastation it wrought highlighted the desperate need for international help, as aid groups’ relief efforts were hampered by funding and access constraints.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch urged international donors to ease restrictions on Afghanistan’s banking sector to facilitate economic activity and humanitarian aid.

“Regardless of the Taliban’s status or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions are still driving the country’s catastrophe and hurting the Afghan people,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Afghan women chant and hold signs of protest during a demonstration in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo: Mohammed Shoaib Amin/AP)

Media and freedom of speech

The Taliban imposed wide-ranging restrictions on media and free speech in a bid to stifle criticism and dissent, leading to dozens of journalists being arbitrarily arrested and protesters being beaten in the streets.

At a meeting with journalists in September, the Taliban’s Ministry of Information and Culture distributed media regulations which were “vaguely worded, dangerous and liable to be used to persecute them”, Reporters Without Borders warned.

Some of the regulations forbid journalists to broadcast or publish stories that are “contrary to Islam” and “insult national figures”.  

Another rule stipulated that “matters that have not been confirmed by officials at the time of broadcasting or publication should be treated with care”.

The country’s Tolo News reported that 218 media outlets out of 544 have ceased operations and 7,000 media workers lost their jobs in the past year, according to figures by the Afghanistan Federation of Journalists and Media.

Shortly after Kabul fell to the Taliban, brave Afghan women carried out demonstrations in several cities to protest against policies violating women’s rights. Taliban fighters responded by lashing protesters and firing their weapons to disperse crowds.

The Taliban subsequently banned protests that did not have prior approval from the justice and interior ministry, but some protesters continued to demonstrate regardless.

Afghan Hazara children carry washed utensils as they walk home in the Paytaw village of Yakawlang in Bamiyan province (Photo: Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP)

Persecution of minority groups

The predominantly Pashtun and Sunni Muslim Taliban has aimed many of its attacks at minority groups, including the Hazara community and LGBTQ+ people.

The Hazara, an ethnic minority group that mostly practices Shia Islam, has been historically discriminated against, but attacks have worsened during the past year.

In May, a bombing at a girls school in the Hazara neighbourhood of west Kabul killed at least 90 people. The Taliban denied it was involved and condemned the incident.

Despite promises to protect Hazaras and other ethnic groups, Amnesty International reported that Taliban fighters had unlawfully killed 13 Hazaras – including nine surrendering former government soldiers and a 17-year-old girl – in Daykundi province about two weeks after the group came to power.

More recently, Amnesty International said on 8 August that a series of attacks in the days prior led to about 120 deaths and injuries in areas dominated by Hazara Shiite communities in west Kabul.

Zaman Sultani, Amnesty International’s South Asia regional researcher, said: “The systematic attacks on the minority Hazara Shiite community in Afghanistan may amount to crimes against humanity and should be unequivocally condemned.

“In the last year there have been multiple attacks on the minority community with little to no action.”

LGBTQ+ people who have long been discriminated against in Afghanistan faced increased threats of torture, sexual violence and execution under Taliban rule.

Reports emerged of beatings and killings, with a report by Human Rights Watch in January highlighting incidents where LGBT+ Afghans “survived gang rape, mob attacks or have been hunted by their own family members who joined the Taliban”. Foreign Policy magazine said there was one case where “a young man’s abused body was dumped in a street days after he went missing”.

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