The United Nations said Wednesday that Taliban restrictions on the rights of women and girls had "effectively trapped" most of them in their homes, turning Afghanistan into the "most repressive" country in the world for women.
The U.N. statement marking International Women's Day comes as female activists gathered in the street of the Afghan capital, Kabul, for a second day to protest the ruling Taliban's ban on girls' access to education and work.
"Afghanistan under the Taliban remains the most repressive country in the world regarding women's rights and it has been distressing to witness their methodical, deliberate, and systematic efforts to push Afghan women and girls out of the public sphere," said Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the U.N. mission in Kabul.
"Confining half of the country's population to their homes in one of the world's largest humanitarian and economic crises is a colossal act of national self-harm," she added, renewing her call on the Taliban to halt and reverse the "harsh restrictions."
Otunbayeva warned that the crackdown on women's rights would damage Afghanistan's prospects of recovering from decades of war and condemn all its citizens to poverty for generations. "It will further isolate Afghanistan from its citizens and the rest of the world," the U.N. envoy said.
The Taliban returned to power in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO troops withdrew from the country after two decades of war.
The hardline de facto leaders have since implemented a strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, barring most Afghan women from workplaces and banning female education beyond grade six in the impoverished South Asian nation of about 40 million people.
"The time has come for the United Nations to take a decisive and serious decision concerning the fate of the [Afghan] people," one of the protesters at the Kabul rally read from a statement, according to AFP.
The U.N. says Afghan women's right to travel or work outside their homes and to access public spaces is largely restricted. They have also been excluded from all levels of public decision making.
The international community has not recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. It calls on the hardline leadership to uphold human rights and cut ties with terrorist groups before it is willing to engage in diplomatic relations.
On Wednesday, Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, voiced her solidarity with women in Afghanistan, saying she will continue to advocate for them with "every tool" at her disposal.
"The road ahead will be undeniably challenging, but you are not alone. We will continue working with you to remind the world that we cannot allow the normalization of policies that have made half of the population prisoners in their homes," Amiri wrote in an open letter to Afghan women.
Taliban leaders did not immediately respond to the renewed international criticism of their governance. The male-only Taliban administration has said its policies align with Afghan culture and Islamic law. Afghans and scholars in other Muslim-majority countries reject the claims, saying neither local culture nor Islam bans women's access to education and public life.
On Tuesday, Taliban Higher Education Minister Neda Mohammad Nadim, while addressing a gathering in Kabul, insisted they had not banned female education but suspended it temporarily. He asserted the Taliban are being "uselessly" and "unfairly" accused of being enemies of women.
"[But] we cannot act based on anyone's recommendations. The individuals should not make such demands on us that our tradition, customs, and Islamic religion do not allow," Nadim said, without naming anyone.