Afghanistan: UN experts deplore women sports ban, call for vigorous response

GENEVA (14 September 2021) - UN human rights experts* today deplored a statement to the media by a Taliban official on 8 September that women would not be allowed to participate in sport, warning that it could be a step toward "gender apartheid".

A subsequent reported statement by an Afghan sporting official suggested a final decision has not yet been taken. In this context, the UN experts urged the Taliban to immediately and unequivocally indicate that women will be allowed to take part in sports, and ensure their participation.

If a prohibition on women in sports is imposed, the experts noted, States and sporting associations around the world should implement a ban on Afghanistan taking part in international sports competitions.

"Just as racial apartheid in sports has been banned in international law, the total exclusion of women from athletics must be recognized as entirely beyond the pale, and as a violation in which others must not be complicit," the experts said.

"The right to gender equality, and the right to take part in cultural life without discrimination require women's equal access to participation in sports."

The deputy head of the Taliban's cultural commission said in an interview last week that women's sport was considered neither appropriate nor necessary.

The experts said international sporting associations should react vigorously and ensure that Afghanistan is unable to take part in international sports competition if women's rights to participate in sports are not guaranteed. This reflects the spirit of the International Declaration against Apartheid in Sports and the International Convention Banning Apartheid in Sports, which calls on States to "use their best endeavours to ensure universal compliance with the Olympic principle of non-discrimination".

The 8 September statement suggesting exclusion of women in sports - coinciding with the announcement of an all-male interim government - is only one of the Taliban's moves to arbitrarily deprive women and girls of their participation in public and cultural life reported in recent days, including arrests of women protesters, the ordering of some women to stay away from their workplaces, as well as exclusion from some educational settings and segregation in others. Taken together this suggests a deteriorating human rights situation in the country.

"This pronouncement that women do not need sports and may not participate in sports suggests a return to the Taliban's grim history of systematically excluding women from public life and practicing gender apartheid," the experts said.

"Today they will be kept off the fields and pitches, tomorrow it may be more widespread exclusion from public life as was the case under the previous Taliban regime. This is entirely unacceptable.

"The international community and all governments, as well as sports bodies, must take a firm stand for the universal human rights of Afghan women now, drawing a very clear, meaningful red line, or the situation may worsen even further."

The experts commended sporting associations and governments which have already announced they would not compete against Afghanistan in protest against the stated ban on women's participation in sport.

"Acquiescence to gender apartheid is complicity with gross abuses of human rights," the experts said. "Gender equality is a cornerstone of international law and the UN Charter itself. International law entirely rejects attempts to justify violations of human rights on the claimed basis of cultural or religious arguments.

"Women of every religious and cultural background participate in sports in every region of the world as part of their internationally guaranteed right to take part in cultural life, and to equality. Afghan women must not be denied this right."


*The experts: Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls: Ms. Melissa Upreti (Chair), Ms. Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Vice-Chair), Ms. Elizabeth Broderick, Ms. Ivana Radačić and Ms. Meskerem Geset Techane.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.