September 7, 2023

IntelBrief: Two Years After the Taliban Takeover, a Surge of Suicides Among Afghan Women

AP Photo/Abdul Khaliq, file

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan over two years ago, a mental health crisis among Afghan women has been exacerbated, including a sharp rise in suicides, according to recent statistics.
  • Edicts issued by Taliban authorities severely curtailing women’s rights and their participation in public life, as well as the harsh enforcement of those laws, have contributed to the despair felt by many Afghan women.
  • Peaceful public demonstrations by Afghan women demanding their rights have been met with excessive use of force, intimidation, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrest, torture, and even death.
  • The plight of Afghan women and girls has become a fixture of the international debate around normalizing relations with the Taliban.

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan over two years ago, a mental health crisis among women in the country, including a surge in suicides, has been exacerbated. According to data shared with the Guardian by healthcare workers from public hospitals and mental health clinics across a third of Afghanistan’s provinces, there has been a sharp increase in the number of women committing or attempting to commit suicide. The data, collected between August 2021 and 2022, is likely an undercount, as the stigma around suicide in Afghanistan means that many families do not report them when they occur or attempt to cover them up. Taliban authorities have also not published data on suicides and have reportedly barred health workers from sharing updated statistics in multiple provinces. Yet, the recent statistics, which cover a wide demographic and geographic range, demonstrate the concerns that UN officials, health care providers, and human rights activists have raised since the Taliban came to power in the country, as well as with each new successive restriction on women and girls’ freedoms and their progressive exclusion from the public sphere. According to one psychologist interviewed by the BBC, she received 170 calls asking for help within two days of the announcement that women would be banned from universities, and now she gets approximately seven to ten new calls every day, with most of her patients being girls and young women.

Edicts issued by Taliban authorities have severely curtailed women’s rights and their participation in public life, including their freedom of movement, attire, and behavior as well as access to education, work, health, and justice.  According to UN experts, the edicts are believed to be primarily issued by the Taliban’s supreme leader to relevant administrative entities, who then issue them to the public through official instructions to central and provincial authorities, in speeches by officials, and social and mainstream media. The General Directorate of Intelligence operates as the enforcer of restrictions, including arresting, detaining, interrogating, and reportedly torturing individuals suspected of defying the edicts.

Women and girls have been barred from attending public universities, severely restricted in their ability to access employment and pursue professional training, banned from public baths, parks, and gyms, and prevented from leaving the home without the accompaniment of a male relative or wearing a “proper hijab.” The combination of keeping women out of medical occupations and medical schools, restricting male healthcare professionals from treating women and girls, and the decimation of Afghanistan’s health system by decades of conflict and insufficient investment has severely complicated Afghan women’s access to critical healthcare, including mental health services. Efforts by the previous government to tackle the widespread issue of domestic violence, although imperfect, have been dismantled under the Taliban, compounding a sense of despair. These discriminatory policies and the “harsh enforcement methods” used against dissenters constitute gender persecution and an institutionalized framework of gender apartheid, according to a recent joint report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls. Many have linked these policies to the increased rate of suicide among women, compounded by food insecurity, poverty, and widespread domestic violence and forced marriages. According to Fawzia Koofi, former deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament under the previous government, “[e]very day there is at least one or two women who commit suicide for the lack of opportunity, for the mental health, for the pressure they receive.”

Since the Taliban takeover, peaceful public demonstrations by Afghan women demanding their rights have been reportedly met with excessive force, intimidation, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrest, torture, and even death. According to the joint UN report, some of the arbitrary arrests could possibly amount to forced disappearances. According to a regional affiliate of The Independent newspaper, the Taliban reportedly arrested more than seventy male and female protestors during a demonstration in September 2021, with eight of the detainees found dead in the street a week later. Activists who witnessed the arrests and spoke to detainees after their release say they were tortured, beaten, and raped, with some reporting that detainees were coerced into becoming informants for the Taliban to secure their release. Sources also claimed that some girls were killed by their families after they were released from captivity due to the fact they were raped while in custody, and that other families of detainees have fled Afghanistan due to threats from the Taliban and social pressure. According to Human Rights Watch, armed Taliban members were already present at a location where protestors planned to meet ahead of a demonstration in January 2022, reinforcing fears that authorities had infiltrated activists’ communications. In July 2023, the closing of women-only beauty salons – one of the few public places left where women could congregate outside the home – prompted public protests in Kabul, where women were met and dispersed with force by Taliban security forces. Women continue to be the primary advocates for their rights and have even adapted their protest movements online to adapt to the crackdowns. Yet some activists fear that the repression, abuse, and waning international interest will make women feel that continuing their acts of protest has become a futile endeavor.

The plight of Afghan women and girls has become a fixture and key point of contention in the international debate around normalizing relations with the Taliban. No country has formally recognized the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that there can be no normalization between the U.S. and the Taliban unless “the rights of women and girls among other things are actually supported.” Yet, a few countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Türkiye, have moved toward what some experts have called “soft normalization” of the Taliban regime. In May, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani reportedly met the Taliban’s leader in Kandahar, in what is so far the first known meeting between a foreign official and the Taliban chief. China and Russia have also taken steps toward establishing ties with the group. Regional security, counterterrorism objectives, including combatting Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), ISIS’s Afghan branch, and humanitarian concerns have been listed by some analysts as requiring more official engagement with the Taliban. As Taliban rule seems likely to endure for the foreseeable future, the debate over normalization, and calls by some analysts and experts, is growing. Yet, others, such as Shaharzad Akbar, the former chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, have highlighted how international legitimacy would leave the international community little leverage to incentivize the Taliban to reverse its edicts and restore women's and girls’ rights. As these debates continue, and the Taliban only seems to escalate its repression, the situation for women and girls and the accompanying mental health crisis seems likely to only worsen.