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Rising reports of femicide: new digital map documents cases of violence and repression of Afghan women in ‘public’ roles

Female-led newsroom Zan Times used investigative reporting and open source techniques to document killings, disappearances and arrests of Afghan women.


22 Apr 2024

Photo: © Afghan Witness Please note, this article describes details that some readers may find distressing. Teachers, students, midwives, policewomen, civil servants, a former member of parliament and a bank employee – these are among the women and girls killed since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Those arrested include women’s rights activists or anti-Taliban protesters. 

A live archive launched by Afghan media outlet Zan Times, supported by the Centre for Information Resilience’s (CIR) Afghan Witness (AW) project, maps and details the killing, disappearance and arrest of ‘public’ women – defined as those working or studying outside the home, or those who have protested or spoken out against the Taliban.  The Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) designed and built the map. 

A team of 10 investigators worked on the cases over a six-month period, with incidents dating back to September 2021. Zan Times used a combination of open source techniques and investigative journalism to verify cases, gathering key details about the killing and detention of the women and the likely perpetrators, as well as the current status of the cases.

Screenshot of the Zan Times map, which shows the killing, disappearance and arrest of ‘public’ women in Afghanistan since September 2021, built and developed by C4ADS

The details included in the map are the result of investigations into 15 cases of killing and disappearance, and 34 arrests of women activists who campaigned for women’s rights and spoke out against the Taliban regime. Many of the women arrested, often without charge, were released days later. They reported suffering torture while in detention.

According to Zahra Nader, Editor-in-Chief of Zan Times, “Since the Taliban takeover, we've seen widespread and growing violence against women across the board. Following some of these cases, a disturbing pattern emerged. Most of the women who turned up dead or disappeared seemed to have had public roles – including working or studying outside their homes – or had spoken out against the regime, including taking part in protests.” 

Growing trend in reports of violence

Investigations by Zan Times and other media outlets revealed that some of the women recorded in the archive were pregnant at the time of their deaths or were the sole breadwinners of their families before being killed. 

One former police officer and mother-of-nine was eight months pregnant at the time of her killing and had over 15 years of experience, including as a guard at a female prison. Reporting by Zan Times and the Guardian in September 2021 described how she was beaten and shot by armed individuals who identified themselves as ‘mujahedeen’, a term often used by Taliban fighters. While the Taliban claimed they had detained suspects, sources close to the victim say the perpetrators were never arrested and remain free.

Cases like this one reflect a growing trend in online reports of killings of women across Afghanistan. AW has collected claims on social media of more than 260 women killed since January 2022. In online posts, perpetrators were often identified as family members, unknown, and in some cases, Taliban members. A lack of evidence, however – often a result of widespread self-censorship and fear – means deaths reported online are extremely hard to verify through open source methods alone. 

Women who are well-known and politically active are being targeted, with only rare instances of justice for those perpetrating the violence,” says Nader. “Occasionally, cases are investigated by the Taliban, however, sometimes there is credible evidence that indicates Taliban members themselves are responsible.” 

The details compiled by the Zan Times team also describe the violent nature of the incidents, with some women shot, often multiple times. One 23-year-old midwife, who set out to work and never returned, was shot 12 times. A source who saw her body described how she had been “horribly tortured”, with one of her legs amputated and signs of lashings visible on her body. In another case, the bodies of two missing schoolgirls were found wrapped in black cloth and dumped by a roadside in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Afghan women push back, hate speech spills over online

Despite this trend, Afghan women continue to form protest movements and use social media to reach wider audiences. With the suppression of women’s protests and marches on the streets of Kabul and other major cities, AW saw a wave of indoor protest movements emerge, where women film themselves protesting in groups or individually, uploading the footage to social media to gain visibility.

With a bolder presence of Afghan women online, however, the harassment against them has spilt over to the digital sphere. AW’s 2023 report on online gendered hate speech notes a 217% increase – or a tripling of abusive posts – since the Taliban takeover. 

The online abuse was also overwhelmingly sexualised: investigators found that over 60% of the posts in 2022 contained sexualised terms used to target Afghan women, with an 11.09% increase in such terms from 2021 to 2022.

Increasing reports of femicide, female suicide surges

AW’s records show that, in total, 143 women were killed in the past year alone across Afghanistan, excluding casualties due to explosions and bombings. That figure is based on claims collected from social media, and analysts suspect many incidents go unreported due to widespread self-censorship and the Taliban’s restrictions on journalists. The number of cases shows an increase compared with the data from 2022, where 124 women were killed. 

The claims and reports of the killings attributed the incidents mainly to the victims' family members (45.4%), unknown actors (39.7%) and Taliban members (12.1%). In incidents where women were killed by their family members, the perpetrators included victims' brothers, husbands, sons, fathers, brothers-in-law and sons-in-law. 

The nature of incidents ranged from gunshots to gruesome killings, such as beheadings and mutilations. AW also recorded dozens of incidents where locals and Taliban authorities allegedly discovered women’s bodies killed by unknown actors.

Breakdown of alleged perpetrators of women’s killings, based on open source data collected by Afghan Witness between February 2023 and February 2024

AW has also observed a surge in female suicides in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, with a rising trend each passing year. AW has compiled 195 cases of suicide in Afghanistan since April 2022 and noted that suicides appear to be more common among women. 

According to AW’s records, female suicides are frequently listed as stemming from domestic violence, an increase in early and forced marriages, Taliban-related violence such as rape or detention, and Taliban-imposed restrictions including the closure of girls’ high schools and the ban on university education for women. The same factors have reportedly contributed to a rise in mental health issues, with more than two-thirds of Afghan women and girls reporting “feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression” between April and June 2023.

An ongoing, open source investigation 

Zan Times intends this map to be an ongoing resource and platform to document violence against Afghanistan’s women in the future, providing crucial detail for journalists, researchers and analysts who are monitoring violence against women in the country.  

According to Olivia Pirie-Griffiths, Director of Impact and Engagement at CIR’s Afghan Witness project, “Open source data, corroborated with investigative journalism, allows us to shine a spotlight into the dark injustices carried out against women in today’s Afghanistan, where violence and repression are commonplace and increasing.”

“Through this archive, we can see a glimpse of these women’s lives and the contributions they made to their communities, and learn of the violations carried out against them,” Pirie-Griffiths continues. “We hope to support Zan Times with this important work going forward.” 

Zan Times, which was founded by Zahra Nader in August 2022, is a women-led, investigative newsroom that covers human rights violations in Afghanistan, focusing on women and the LGBTQI+ community. A team of mainly women, they have journalists working both in exile and under pseudonyms from within Afghanistan. 

They have reported extensively on the increasing number of femicides and female suicides since the Taliban’s return to power. Recently, their report on the rise of suicide among Afghan women, which was published in partnership with The Fuller Project and The Guardian, was selected as a finalist for the human rights reporting award by The Canadian Association of Journalists

With the launch of the archive, Zan Times is calling on journalists and activists to help verify cases of all Afghan women who have been arrested, disappeared, and/or killed since August 2021. 

“The information we have is merely the tip of the iceberg,” says Nader. "We hope this archive becomes a powerful tool to shine a light on these injustices, and for holding both the perpetrators and the system of impunity to account.”

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