Rights watchdog slams IOC for not supporting Afghan women athletes

Human Rights Watch this week urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to suspend Taliban-run Afghanistan from participating in international sporting events and to halt the funding the IOC gives to the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee until women and girls can once again play sport in the country.

The watchdog said in a statement that the IOC should “make this decision at its next executive board meeting, which begins in Lausanne, Switzerland on (Tuesday) December 6, 2022”.

The Taliban is systematically erasing women and girls from society, by issuing a string of bans against them. One of the many restrictions on women and girls imposed by the Taliban was to forbid them from playing sports. According to Human Rights Watch, this is a violation of international human rights law, and also of the Olympic Charter, which mandates non-discrimination in sport.

The organization says there is no indication the IOC has applied its framework to the human rights crisis for women, and women’s sport, in Afghanistan.

“In view of the harm to Afghan women and girls by the governing Taliban’s ban on sport, and the threats and violence female athletes face simply to train or compete, the IOC should not continue to support or recognize a national committee that discriminates against half of the population on the basis of gender,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

According to Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch: “The IOC always says ‘athletes are the heart of the Olympic Movement,’ but what about the women and girls of Afghanistan?

“They are athletes too, and have not been given meaningful assistance by the Olympic system. They are still waiting for the IOC to stand with them instead of their abusers, the Taliban,” she stated.

Since the Taliban takeover in August last year, hundreds of female athletes have fled the country rather than give up the sports they love, said Worden, adding that “thousands of women and girls have been denied the right to play sport, and [lost] the education opportunities, scholarships, and right to achieve the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health participating in sport brings.

“The IOC should not take a day longer to remove the Taliban from the Olympic movement, strip their status, and halt the funding the IOC provides,” she said.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and in October 1999, the IOC suspended the country’s national Olympic committee until 2003 on the grounds that the Taliban was barring women from competing in sports.

After returning to power last year, Taliban forces closed training centers and threatened athletes with violence, athletes have reported. According to Human Rights Watch, some Afghan women and girl athletes went into hiding and sought to destroy evidence of their ties to sport including medals and sport kits.

Friba Rezayee, Afghanistan’s first female Olympian in judo told Human Rights Watch that “Afghan sports federations must permit the equal participation of women in any sport that they desire to train and compete in and the Taliban must remove all arbitrary bans on sports training facilities and competition for women.”

She pointed out that the IOC states a goal of 50-50 gender ratio and equal male to female participation in all sports; however, the Afghan National Olympic Committee is fully controlled by the Taliban government. As such, the IOC should suspend the Taliban and their male-only athletic federations until women and girls can train and compete again, she said.

“Before the Taliban returned [to power], we had many women’s sports teams including girls’ soccer, volleyball, and martial arts. Our athletes trained hard and dreamed of being champions and role models in their communities. Every female athlete was a human rights defender and a pro-democracy and freedom activist by default,” Rezayee said. “Sports played a vital role in empowering Afghan women and brought visibility to our basic human rights in education, work and life,” she said.

In the 16 months since the Taliban takeover, women’s national football, basketball, volleyball, cricket, and cycling teams have fled the country.

Human Rights Watch stated that playing sport for women and girls in Afghanistan was always a struggle. “Before the Taliban returned to power, Afghan women athletes faced threats from family members and reported sexual assault by sports federation officials, forcing some to flee the country,” the organization stated.

Following the collapse of the former government, members of the Afghan national football team have sought asylum and continued training in Australia. They are fighting to be recognized as the legitimate national team. Members of Afghanistan’s national women’s basketball team also fled the country in October 2021 and have been stuck in Albania awaiting resettlement.

According to the watchdog, since the Taliban takeover, the IOC has remained in contact with the Taliban sport leadership and has provided funding to the Afghan National Olympic Committee to help up to 2,000 Afghan beneficiaries to carry on their sporting activities. However, Human Rights Watch said there is no evidence the IOC solidarity funding or humanitarian funding has reached athletes, either male or female.

The IOC has continued to engage with and support the Taliban, without any adequate response to the deprivation of rights of women and girl athletes, Human Rights Watch said adding that the IOC says it has chosen to engage in “quiet diplomacy” with the Taliban on sport in the country.

The IOC has committed to nondiscrimination in its Olympic Charter, which outlines the Olympic values and principles that guide IOC work. The Olympic Charter itself states in Chapter 1, Rule 2, paragraph 7, that the IOC must “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.”