explainer

Mass evacuation and sex slavery: What the Taliban takeover means for Afghan women.

20 years after the devastation of 9/11, the world is watching on in horror as the Taliban, city by city, overthrow the government of Afghanistan.

Taliban forces moved into the capital of Kabul and the presidential palace early on Sunday, after taking control of Afghanistan in just over a week.

Thousands of foreigners and Afghans - including the country's president - are fleeing to safety, as the terrorist group declare Afghanistan the 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.'

Watch: Afghanistan’s Minister of Education Rangina Hamidi says she is fearful "like every woman in Afghanistan". Post continues after video.


Video via BBC.

Educated Afghan women have among the most to lose under the fundamentalist Taliban, whose past government, overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2001, sought to largely confine women to the home.

We're already seeing women and girls being subjected to abhorrent violence as the Taliban re-asserts their power. 

First, a brief history on the war in Afghanistan.

America and its allies first entered Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks to find and kill organiser Osama Bin Laden, dismantle al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power.

Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, while empowering women, and continuing to dismantle the Taliban. But the US and Afghan militaries were never able to destroy the Taliban all together.

In February 2020, the decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan was agreed to under former President Donald Trump. In exchange, the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaeda and end its attacks on American forces.

August 31 was the deadline, with the new American president Joe Biden ordering the withdrawal of all US troops by September 11 remarking, "we spent over a trillion dollars over twenty years, we trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces. Afghan leaders have to come together... they’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation."

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The human cost of the war is great; 2448 American service members, 3,846 US contractors, 1,144 allied service members (including 41 Aussie troops), 66,000 national military and police, 47,245 Afghan civilians, 72 journalists and 444 aid workers. 

More than 51,000 Taliban and opposition fighters have also died

What's happened over the past week?

It's taken just over a week for the Taliban to regain power, capturing more than a dozen provincial capitals before rounding on the capital Kabul where they have just announced the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace.

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The BBC reports the Taliban has a core strength of 60,000 fighters, but with the addition of other militia groups and supporters, that number could exceed 200,000.

Kabul has been gripped by panic, with helicopters racing overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the US embassy as they burn and destroy sensitive documents and devices on their departure. Several other Western missions have also been scrambling to pull their people out.

250,000 people have been forced out of their homes since May, with NPR reporting that 80 percent of them were women and children.

The conflict "has accelerated much faster than we all anticipated and the situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe," World Food Programme spokesperson Tomson Phiri told the publication.

President Ashraf Ghani has relinquished power to Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader and fled the country, writing in a statement; "In order to avoid the bloodshed, I thought it was best to get out."

The Taliban has promised a "peaceful" transition to power.

The imminent danger facing women and girls. 

Afghans fear that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women's rights before the US-led invasion.

Under their former rule, it was considered a "crime" to be born a woman. Girls were blocked from attending school, residents were ordered to cover their windows so women couldn't be seen from the street, and women were barred from appearing in public without full body coverings and male escorts. Those who refused, were publicly flogged or executed.

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To illustrate the level of oppression and violence, Amnesty International reports a woman in Kabul had the end of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish in 1996, and a man was shot in front of his 15-year-old daughter in 1995, because he allowed her to go to school.

In the years after international intervention, many schools opened their doors to girls, and women went back to work. A new constitution for women's rights was created in 2003 and in 2009 the country adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. Despite these advances for women, Afghanistan was still voted in 2011 as 'the most dangerous country' to be a woman.

The Taliban have claimed they will write laws to ensure women can participate in public life under their new reign, however they've already signalled their intention to deny girls' education past the age of 12 and to ban women from employment.

In early July, as the Taliban took over the provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar, they issued an order demanding religious leaders provide them a list of girls over the age of 15 and widows under the age of 45 for "marriage" with Taliban fighters. The Conversation reports offering "wives" is a strategy aimed at luring in new recruits by forcing women into sexual enslavement under the guise of marriage.

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The desperately poor - who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital as the Taliban swept through the country - remain in parks and open spaces throughout the city. 

A report released last month from the United Nations showed an increase in women and children killed and injured in May and June, which coincides with the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Speaking to the New York Times, Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator says “one thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country — no one can deny them their rights or status.”

But the terror and fear amongst women is palpable. Tahira told The Guardian in August, "If the Taliban take over Kabul they will not allow us to live the independent lives we live today. We are very worried about the forced marriages by the Taliban. If they come for us like this, then we will end our lives. It will be the only option for us."

Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad has tweeted a tear-filled video from a young Afghani woman who tells the camera, "we don't count because we were born in Afghanistan. I cannot help crying. No one cares about us, we'll die slowly in history." 

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An anonymous young female journalist has written for The Guardian, "Last week I was a news journalist. Today I can’t write under my own name or say where I am from or where I am. My whole life has been obliterated in just a few days."

"I am so scared and I don’t know what will happen to me. Will I ever go home? Will I see my parents again? Where will I go? The highway is blocked in both directions. How will I survive?" she continued.

Forced to flee as the Taliban took over her whole province, the 22-year-old knows she will be a target given her occupation as well as her gender, and was told by her manager to flee and hide.

Right now thousands are waiting, terrified, for evacuation flights as gunshots can be heard in and around the international airport. People are packing not just into the seats - but the aisles - as planes take off.

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How is the world reacting?

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What can you do to help?

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The United Nations Refugee Agency Australia for UNHCR says they are committed to stay in Afghanistan and deliver amidst the deteriorating situation and increasing displacement. 

"We’ve activated our emergency preparedness and response and we’re assisting newly displaced Afghans," they've assured on their website. 

They're currently providing emergency shelter, food, health, water and sanitation support and cash assistance - but stocks are running low. 

If you'd like to donate, you can find out how here.

- With AAP

Feature image: Getty/Al Jazeera English/Mamamia.

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