Dorothy Estrada Tanck still knows the Dari phrase she used the most during her trip to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif last April and May. “We are not going to forget them.” She repeated it to dozens of Afghans with whom she met and listened to as they recounted the obstacles and restrictions that were now a part of their daily lives. Weeks later, the expert and Special Rapporteur on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, presented to the UN Human Rights Council an alarming report on the situation of women and girls in the country. It concludes that the Taliban regime has established gender apartheid and is persecuting women.
Estrada Tanck was born in Mexico 47 years ago and is currently chair of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls. She hopes that this report will pave the way for some of the de facto Taliban state’s leaders to be rendered accountable by the courts. Afghanistan “is a wake-up call to the international community” because what happens there can be repeated in other places, warns the lawyer, who is a professor of Public International Law at the University of Murcia (Spain).
Question. In your report, you state that the situation of women in Afghanistan is the worst in the world.
Answer. It certainly is. We have a list of indicators that help us assess whether women’s rights are respected or not. There are countries that fail in some, and Afghanistan fails in all. For example, there is no other state where the education of women over the age of 12 is forbidden. But there are places like Iran, where we see that certain practices, such as the use of the veil or the prohibition on women leaving the house unaccompanied, can become law. Afghanistan must be an alarm signal for other countries and for the rest of the world. It is a wake-up call to the international community, because if this does not stop, what has happened in Kabul will happen in other places. What’s more, it’s already happening. Legal tools must be created to prevent and counteract these situations.
Q. When Afghan women are interviewed, inside and outside the country, their feeling is that the world has forgotten them and has normalized the Taliban regime.
R. We are not going to forget them. Nor are we going to let the [UN member] states, who are the ones that make the decisions, forget them. In the report, we documented and assigned a particular legal category so that the most powerful tools against abuses of this type can be activated. We have put women’s voices at the center and the Afghans are speaking very clearly: they do not want the Taliban regime to be given legitimacy internationally or a new foreign intervention. Nor do they want a new conflict worse than the situation they are already experiencing to be justified under the pretext of defending women’s rights. Because they are people who have suffered a lot. That is why we must find the right strategy: put women at the heart of any conversation about Afghanistan and find peaceful solutions based on human rights. It will be the only guarantee of a sustainable solution over time.
Q. Is it hard to write the flat-out accusation of gender apartheid in a UN report?
R. Of course, there were many conversations and tests before we were sure that we could use this term. What we are seeing in Afghanistan is not just some rules or practices that discriminate against women and girls, but an institutionalized system with increasingly oppressive rules that is managing to erase them from public life and take away the opportunity to exercise any right in any area, including their private lives. We documented it with dozens of remote interviews, and later we verified in the country how the Taliban’s edicts seriously affect Afghans in their daily lives.
Q. In your report, you also mention gender persecution. How does it differ legally from gender apartheid?
R. Both are serious violations of human rights and both are present in Afghanistan. Gender persecution is already a crime against humanity because it is specifically included in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It is a deprivation of fundamental rights to a group of the population through punitive and restrictive methods by reason of their gender. Apartheid is also a crime against humanity, but not gender apartheid, which still needs to be further developed legally. This is one of our recommendations. Because when an abuse is qualified as a crime against humanity, specific individuals (a minister, for example) can be held accountable in court.
Q. You did not want to report from a distance, from an armchair in Geneva?
A. The first step to show that we are not going to abandon the Afghans was to travel to Kabul. The report was the responsibility of two UN mandates: the special rapporteur and us. It is something rare, and it was very interesting to combine the deep vision of the country that the rapporteur has with our wider gender perspective. Women want their voices to be heard, they wanted to tell us things in person, even if it put them at risk. The Taliban did not hinder the mission’s freedom of movement, even though they knew what our job was and that the outcome would be critical of them. There were times when a Taliban vehicle had to make way for our UN car. I saw that and said: what planet am I on? It was surreal.
Q. Was there any testimony that had a particular impact on you?
A. First of all, seeing how Afghans circumvent the regulations in force in unexpected ways to be able to continue to go out or to work. Because resisting is not just protesting in the street. And I was very moved to listen to a girl who was going to start university when the Taliban decreed that women could not go to class and in the end she had to stay at home. She told us: “I put on a veil, I cover myself completely, whatever. I can also go to class with my brother if necessary, but I want to continue studying.” And I thought of my students, of my daughter... The strength of that girl and her courage when speaking were impressive.
Q. Your report insists on lesser-known collateral problems derived from the massive discrimination against women: deaths in hospitals due to a lack of female doctors, an increase in mental health issues, more domestic violence, and so on.
A. Yes. We wanted to use the term “femicide” and this caught the attention of the States. If women cannot study, in a few years there will be no female doctors and this condemns Afghans to a slow death due to totally trivial health problems and preventable diseases, because male doctors cannot treat them. During our trip, we visited a gynecology hospital run by a woman, as healthcare is one of the sectors where female workers are still allowed. She told us that if the situation continues like this, soon there will be no health professionals who can attend a birth. On the other hand, mental problems have increased, especially among Afghans, who are condemned to stay at home with no prospects for the future. But women’s depression and suicide attempts remain completely invisible. They are the last concern on the list. In other words, all the ingredients for a major disaster are present in Afghanistan today.
Q. In this context, can the accusation of gender apartheid, beyond making striking headlines in the press, contribute to any real change in Afghanistan?
A. The report will help the UN Human Rights Council in its session in September to decide whether to follow our recommendation and commission a report on gender apartheid, to seek ways to prevent and eradicate it, including a proposal to convert it into a crime against humanity. It is a long road, but it is an open possibility. Today, with the instruments we have, there could also be a trial against the state of Afghanistan for gender apartheid, because the extreme marginalization of women violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), of which Afghanistan is a part. This would require another state to take up the baton and present a case before the International Court of Justice. There is already a precedent: in 2019 The Gambia filed a case against Myanmar for alleged genocidal acts against the Rohingya minority.
Q. So, legally, steps can be taken?
A. Things are already happening. For example, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors are considering opening cases of gender persecution against people from the de facto government. Another option might be universal jurisdiction: when there are violations that affect mankind in general, a national court can trigger the process even if the alleged crimes have been committed in other parts of the world. In Spain there are precedents. The list of ways for accountability to exist is longer, and we are not in the situation that was experienced under the previous Taliban regime (1996-2001). There is more information and greater mobilization, inside and outside Afghanistan.
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