Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with a directly elected president, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch; however, armed insurgents control portions of the country. The country held presidential elections in September 2019 after technical issues and security requirements compelled the Independent Election Commission to reschedule the election multiple times. The commission announced preliminary election results on December 22, 2019, indicating that President Ashraf Ghani had won, although runner-up and then chief executive Abdullah Abdullah disputed the results, including after final results were announced February 18. Both President Ghani and Abdullah declared victory and held competing swearing-in ceremonies on March 9. Political leaders mediated the resulting impasse, ultimately resulting in a compromise, announced on May 17, in which President Ghani retained the presidency, Abdullah was appointed to lead the High Council for National Reconciliation, and each of them would select one-half of the cabinet members.
Three governmental entities share responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security. The Afghan National Police, under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police, a community-based self-defense force with no legal ability to arrest or independently investigate crimes. In June, President Ghani announced plans to subsume the Afghan Local Police into other branches of the security forces provided individuals can present a record free of allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. As of year’s end, the implementation of these plans was underway. The Major Crimes Task Force, also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The National Directorate of Security functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. Some areas of the country were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, instituted their own justice and security systems. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Although armed conflict continued in the country, on September 12, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban commenced Afghan peace negotiations. Before and during negotiations, armed insurgent groups conducted major attacks on government forces, public places, and civilians, killing and injuring thousands. There were also targeted attacks on women leading up to the start of the negotiations, including an assassination attempt on Fawzia Koofi, one of four women on the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s negotiating team, and two incidents during the Loya Jirga (grand council) in August in which parliamentarian Belqis Roshan was assaulted and violent threats were made against delegate Asila Wardak. Since November 7, unknown actors killed eight journalists and activists in targeted killings, three of whom were killed between December 21 and 24. Many of the attacks were unclaimed; the Taliban denied involvement.
Significant human rights issues included: killings by insurgents; extrajudicial killings by security forces; forced disappearances by antigovernment personnel; reports of torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment by security forces and antigovernment entities; arbitrary detention by government security forces and insurgents; serious abuse in internal conflict, including killing of civilians, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture and physical abuses, and other conflict-related abuses; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes; recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual abuse of children, including by security force members and educational personnel; trafficking in persons; violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; violence by security forces and other actors against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.
Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses were serious, continuing problems. The government did not investigate or prosecute consistently or effectively abuses by officials, including security forces.
Antigovernment elements continued to attack religious leaders who spoke out against the Taliban. During the year many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Nonstate armed groups, primarily the Taliban and Islamic State in Khorasan Province, accounted for most child recruitment and used children younger than age 12 during the year. Insurgent groups, including the Taliban, increasingly used children as suicide bombers. Antigovernment elements threatened, robbed, kidnapped, and attacked government workers, foreigners, medical and nongovernmental organization workers, and other civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 5,939 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, with approximately 59 percent of these casualties attributed to antigovernment actors. The Taliban did not claim responsibility for civilian casualties. The Taliban referred to their attacks as “martyrdom operations.”
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.
Freedom of Speech: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature was more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms, although the monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law, which provides for public access to government information, remained inconsistent, and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the law, and therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they sought. Furthermore, journalists stated government sources shared information with only a few media outlets. Human Rights Watch criticized the arrest of a government employee who was alleged by First Vice President Amrullah Saleh to have spread false information about the October 21 attack on a school and mosque in Takhar that resulted in civilian deaths.
Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-linked figures attempting to influence how they were covered in the news. The Afghanistan Journalists’ Council said that during the year journalists’ social media accounts were hacked and journalists were threatened by the Office of the National Security Council.
On May 30, a journalist and a driver from Khurshid TV were killed when their vehicle, carrying 15 employees of the station, was hit by a roadside bomb in Kabul. Four other employees of the station were wounded. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.
On November 12, an explosive in Lashkargah city killed Radio Azadi reporter Ilias Daee, as well as his brother. Journalist Malala Maiwand was killed by gunmen on December 10 in Jalalabad, and journalist Rahmatullah Nekzad was killed in Ghazni on December 21. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks. Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, business owners, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.
Vida Saghari, a female journalist, faced a series of online harassments, including hate speech and death threats, following her criticism of a cleric’s Ramadan rallies in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, according to RSF.
Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media was also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks.
Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and daily newspapers openly criticized the government. Nevertheless, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. A greater percentage of the population, including those in rural areas, had easier access to radio than other forms of media. According to The Asia Foundation, rural inhabitants primarily received news and information from family and friends, followed by television and radio.
Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats and violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. According to RSF, NDS officials arrested Radio Bayan journalist Mahboboalah Hakimi on July 1. Two days after Hakimi’s arrest, the NDS released a video of Hakimi confessing to posting a video critical of the president, an action he had previously denied, and apologizing to the president. Following Hakimi’s release, he alleged the NDS tortured him and forced him to record his confession.
RSF also reported that authorities had harassed Pajhwok Afghan News agency, including through NDS interrogations of its director, following its June 22 reporting that ventilators intended to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak had been stolen and illegally sold to a neighboring country.
At least six journalists were killed during the year, and another died under suspicious circumstances. According to the Afghanistan Journalists’ Council, as of September, three journalists were kidnapped, 12 were injured, and more than 30 were beaten or otherwise threatened.
The Taliban continued to threaten journalists, and civil society alleged the Taliban continued to attack media organizations. The Taliban warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.”
Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. A radio reporter was killed in police crossfire during a demonstration in Ghor Province on May 9. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals.
The law provides guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The guidelines created a joint national committee in Kabul, chaired by Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported the committee met regularly during the year, referred cases to the Attorney General’s Office, and pushed for the resolution of cases, but it did not increase protection for journalists. A journalist advocacy organization reported that due to these pressures and the fact that many journalists were not paid for months at a time, many outlets closed during the year.
Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, there were no female journalists in five of the country’s 34 provinces: Kunar, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, and Uruzgan.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Ajmal Ahmady, Afghanistan Bank governor and economic advisor to the president, blocked journalists on his Twitter feed, reportedly for being publicly critical of him. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. Most requests for information from journalists who lacked influential connections inside the government or international media credentials were disregarded, and government officials often refused to release information, claiming it was classified. Many journalists asserted that First Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s statement that he would hold those who shared “disinformation” on the victims of the October 21 incident in Takhar criminally responsible was a restriction on freedom of speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe prison sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.
National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.
Women in some areas of the country said their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The EVAW presidential decree was first issued in 2009 and was reinforced by another presidential decree in 2018. Implementation and awareness of the decree remained a serious problem. The decree criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including rape; battery or beating; forced marriage; humiliation; intimidation; and deprivation of inheritance. The penal code criminalizes rape of both women and men. The law provides for a minimum sentence of five to 16 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape, or up to 20 years if one or more aggravating circumstances is present. If the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for a death sentence for the perpetrator. The penal code criminalizes statutory rape and prohibits the prosecution of rape victims for zina. The law provides for imprisonment of up to seven years for conviction of “aggression to the chastity or honor of a female [that] does not lead to penetration to anus or vagina.” Under the law rape does not include spousal rape. Authorities did not always enforce these laws, although the government was implementing limited aspects of EVAW, including through EVAW prosecution units.
Prosecutors and judges in rural areas were frequently unaware of the EVAW decree or received pressure to release defendants due to familial loyalties, threat of harm, or bribes, or because some religious leaders declared the law un-Islamic. Female victims faced stringent or violent societal reprisal, ranging from imprisonment to extrajudicial killing.
The penal code criminalizes forced gynecological exams, which act as “virginity tests,” except when conducted pursuant to a court order or with the consent of the subject. Awareness and enforcement of the restrictions on forced gynecological exams remained limited. In October the AIHRC reported that more than 90 percent of these exams were conducted without either a court order or the individual’s consent, and were conducted related to accusations including: adultery, murder, theft, and running away from home, among others. The Ministry of Public Health claimed no exam had taken place without a court order and the consent of the individual. There were reports police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order the exams in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subjected to the exams.
The penal code criminalizes assault, and courts convicted domestic abusers under this provision, as well as under the “injury and disability” and beating provisions in the EVAW decree. According to NGO reports, millions of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, in-laws, and other individuals. State institutions, including police and judicial systems, failed to adequately address such abuse. Lockdowns due to COVID-19 forced women to spend more time at home, reportedly resulting in increased incidence of domestic violence as well as additional stress on already limited victim support systems. One such incident included a man from Paktika Province who cut off his wife’s nose with a kitchen knife in May. The woman, who regularly faced physical abuse by her husband, was reportedly seeking to leave the abusive relationship when her husband attacked her.
Due to cultural normalization and a view of domestic violence as a “family matter,” domestic violence often remained unreported. The justice system’s response to domestic violence was insufficient, in part due to underreporting, preference toward mediation, sympathy toward perpetrators, corruption, and family or tribal pressure. There were EVAW prosecution units in all 34 provinces, and EVAW court divisions expanded during the year to operate at the primary and appellate levels in all 34 provinces.
Space at the 28 women’s protection centers across the country was sometimes insufficient, particularly in major urban centers, and shelters remained concentrated in the western, northern, and central regions of the country. Some women did not seek legal assistance for domestic or sexual abuse because they did not know their rights or because they feared prosecution or being sent back to their family or to the perpetrator. Cultural stigmatization of women who spend even one night outside the home also prevented women from seeking services that may bring “shame” to herself or family.
In 2019 the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) banned for life the Afghanistan Football Federation’s former head, Keramuddin Karim, and fined him one million Swiss francs (one million dollars) after finding him guilty of sexually abusing female players. At least five female soccer players accused Karim of repeated sexual abuse, including rape, from 2013 to 2018 while he served as the federation president. The players stated that Karim threatened them with reputational and additional physical harm if they did not comply with his advances. Women who rebuffed his advances were expelled from the team, according to eight former players who experienced such treatment. Those who went public faced intimidation. The Attorney General’s Office indicted Karim on multiple counts of rape in 2019, but the court sent the case back to the attorney general for further investigation before trial, and Karim was never questioned. Security forces attempted to arrest Karim on August 23 in Panjshir Province (where he was a former governor) but failed after local residents, many of whom were armed, intervened in support of Karim. At year’s end Karim was still at large.
At times women in need of protection ended up in prison, either because their community lacked a protection center or because “running away” was interpreted as a moral crime. Adultery, fornication, and kidnapping are criminal offenses. Running away is not a crime under the law, and both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office issued directives to this effect, but some local authorities continued to detain women and girls for running away from home or “attempted zina.” The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as nongovernmental entities, sometimes arranged marriages for women who could not return to their families.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law criminalizes forced, underage, and baad marriages (the practice of settling disputes in which the culprit’s family trades a girl to the victim’s family) and interference with a woman’s right to choose her spouse. NGOs reported instances of baad were still practiced, often in rural areas. The practice of exchanging brides between families was not criminalized and remained widespread.
Honor killings continued throughout the year. In May a soldier in Badakhshan Province stabbed his 18-year-old sister to death in an apparent honor killing after she rejected her family’s proposal for an arranged marriage.
Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes all forms of harassment of women and children, including physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual. By law all government ministries are required to establish a committee to review internal harassment complaints and support appropriate resolution of these claims. Implementation and enforcement of the law remained limited and ineffective. Media reported that the number of women reporting sexual harassment increased compared with prior years, although some speculated this could be an increased willingness to report cases rather than an increase in the incidence of harassment. Women who walked outside alone or who worked outside the home often experienced harassment, including groping, catcalling, and being followed. Women with public roles occasionally received threats directed at them or their families.
Businesswomen faced myriad challenges from the traditional nature of society and its norms with regard to acceptable behavior by women. When it was necessary for a businesswoman to approach the government for some form, permit, or authorization, it was common for a male functionary to ask for sexual favors or money in exchange for the authorization. In April, Human Rights Watch reported that a government employee, in front of other colleagues, told a woman with a disability he would process her disability certificate, which provides a stipend, if she had sex with him. The employee’s colleagues, according to her statement, laughed and said, “How do you want to get your disability card when you don’t want to sleep with us?” She reported that other women with disabilities had faced similar experiences when requesting disability certificates.
Reproductive Rights: In 2020 married couples had the legal right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. The Family Law (2019), which is in effect by promulgation of presidential proclamation (though parliament has not passed it), outlines individuals’ rights to reproductive health. There were no recent, reliable data regarding reproductive rights in 2020. According to the 2015 Afghanistan Demographic and Health Survey, however, only 5 percent of women made independent decisions about their own health care, while 44 percent reported that their husbands made the decisions for them.
Having a child outside of wedlock is a crime according to the penal code and is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment for both men and women. A mother faced severe social stigma for having a child out of wedlock, even when the pregnancy was a result of rape. Intentionally ending a pregnancy is a crime under both the penal code and the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law and is punishable by three months to one years’ imprisonment.
In 2020 there were no legal barriers to the use of any type of contraception, but there were social and cultural barriers, including the social practice of mandating a woman’s husband consent to the use of contraception. There were no legal barriers that prevent a woman from receiving reproductive health care or obstetrical care, but socially, many men prevented their wives from receiving care from male doctors or from having a male doctor in attendance at the birth of a child.
Families and individuals in cities generally had better access to information and better means to manage their reproductive health than did those living in rural areas. According to the United Nations, the rate of contraceptive use among married women was 35 percent for those living in urban areas compared with 19 percent in rural areas. According to the UN Population Fund, 20 percent of women could not exercise their right to reproductive health due to violence, and 50 percent did not have access to information about their reproductive rights. According to the Ministry of Public Health, while there was wide variance, most clinics offered some type of modern family planning method.
The WHO reported that the country had 638 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017 (the last year of reported data). A survey conducted by the Central Statistics Organization in the provinces of Bamyan, Daikundi, Ghor, Kabul, Kapisa, and Parwan concluded that many factors contributed to the high maternal death rate, including early pregnancy, narrowly spaced births, and high fertility. Some societal norms, such as a tradition of home births and the requirement for some women to be accompanied by a male relative to leave their homes, led to negative reproductive health outcomes, including inadequate prenatal, postpartum, and emergency obstetric care. Access to maternal health care services was constrained by the limited number of female health practitioners, including an insufficient number of skilled birth attendants. Additionally, the conflict environment and other security concerns limited women’s safe access to health services of any kind.
The EVAW law and the Prohibition of Harassment against Women and Children Law (2017) contain provisions to support female victims of violence, including sexual violence. In 2020 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was charged with raising awareness of gender-based and sexual violence and providing legal support to survivors. According to the ministry, assistance was usually focused on pursuing legal action against the perpetrators but sometimes included general health services.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported they experienced discrimination within the judicial system. Some observers, including female judges, asserted that discrimination was a result of faulty implementation of law. Limited access to money and other resources to pay fines (or bribes) and the social requirement for women to have a male guardian affected women’s access to and participation in the justice system. Women do not have equal legal rights, compared to men, to inherit assets as a surviving spouse, and daughters do not have equal rights, compared to sons, to inherit assets from their parents.
By law women may not unilaterally divorce their husbands, but they may do so with the husband’s consent to the divorce, although men may unilaterally divorce their wives. Many women petition instead for legal separation. According to the family court in Kabul, during the year women petitioned for legal separation twice as frequently as in the previous year.
Prosecutors and judges in some provinces continued to be reluctant to use the EVAW decree, and judges sometimes replaced those charges with others based on the penal code.
The law provides for equal work without discrimination, but there are no provisions for equal pay for equal work. The law criminalizes interference with a woman’s right to work. Women faced discrimination in access to employment and terms of occupation.
Female political figures and activists were the targets of assassinations and assassination attempts throughout the year. On December 24, unknown gunmen killed women’s rights activist Freshta Kohistani, along with her brother.
Unknown gunmen attacked Fawzia Koofi, a former lawmaker and member of the government negotiating team in intra-Afghan negotiations, who sustained minor injuries.
Similarly, Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of Maidan Shahr (capital city of Wardak Province), survived two separate assassination attempts. On March 22, unknown gunmen fired on her car; she did not sustain injuries. On October 3, unknown gunmen ambushed her car, but she again escaped unharmed. On November 12, assailants shot and killed Ghafari’s father, an army colonel. The Taliban acknowledged responsibility for the attack. Ghafari claimed the Taliban killed her father to discourage her from serving as mayor.
On August 25, unknown gunmen shot at the car carrying actress and women’s rights campaigner Saba Sahar. Sahar and her companions were injured in the attack.
On November 8, Abdul Sami Yousufi, a prosecutor specializing in EVAW cases, was killed by a group of unidentified gunmen on motorcycles of Herat city. The Herat Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation following the killing.
On November 10, media outlets reported that unidentified assailants attacked and blinded Khatera, a female police officer, for securing a position on the police force. According to media reports, the attackers were tipped off by Khatera’s father. Khatera blamed the Taliban for the attack, although they denied responsibility.