Women’s sport under Taliban regime: An issue that the International Community must take seriously
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
In early September, the new Taliban government in Afghanistan announced a ban on women playing sport in the country. The announcement joined others that paint a bleak picture of the future for women and girls in the country. Sadly, it seems that they are once again condemned to invisibility and subjugation, that they will be relegated to the private sphere and deprived of their rights. Among them, the right to practice sport. Is there anything the international community can do to prevent this?
It is safe to say that there is an international consensus that the right to sport is guaranteed by international human rights law (IHRL). This is clearly stated, for example, in the UNESCO International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport, article 1.1 of which affirms that
‘Every human being has a fundamental right to physical education, physical activity and sport without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property or any other basis’ (emphasis added).
In relation, in particular, to women and girls, the third paragraph of the same article establishes that
‘Equal opportunity to participate and be involved at all supervision and decision-making levels in physical education, physical activity and sport, whether for the purpose of recreation, health promotion or high performance, is the right of every girl and every woman that must be actively enforced’.
Other relevant examples in this regard include articles 10.g and 13 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and article 14.1 of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
Despite the forcefulness of these international provisions, we all know that the reality is quite different. And not just in Afghanistan. Women’s discrimination in sports is commonplace and has been repeatedly denounced (see here, here and here). The reasons behind this situation are deep-rooted and have to do with prevailing stereotypes about what the role of women in society should be.
But let us turn our eyes again to the ban proclaimed by the new Taliban government and to the question asked above: What can or should the international community do to better protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan? At the present time, when this new government seems to be seeking recognition from the international community, making such recognition conditional on compliance with basic human rights standards seems to me to be fundamental. No State should consider legitimate a government that so flagrantly violates the rights of women and girls, even if that government demonstrates its ability to effectively control the territory and its population. Among these rights is, of course, the right of access to sport and physical activity. This is by no means a minor issue. The right to sport is, in the first place, directly related to the guarantee of other human rights, such as the right to health or the right to education. It is also a fundamental tool in the socialization process and can thus contribute to women's social and economic empowerment. Nevertheless, the fight against gender discrimination in sports has been marginalized before other fields that, as the labour, education of political fields, have gathered the efforts of the International Community. Very likely, the reason behind this marginalization has something to do with the erroneous idea that the practice of sport is social and politically conceived as a minor or secondary need. Anyone who thinks this will be purely and simply barking up the wrong tree.
In short: Women and girls’ right to sport in Afghanistan is a matter for the international community as a whole. It is time to get serious about it!
Carmen Pérez González
Associate Professor of Public International Law and International Relations
UNESCO/UC3M Chair on Education Linkage through International Sports
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid