The UN rights chief on Wednesday slammed the Taliban’s “institutionalised systematic oppression” of women and girls in Afghanistan, warning they face a “critical” situation.

Since the Taliban returned to power last August, Afghanis have been “experiencing some of the darkest moments of a generation”, Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

She decried especially the “scourge of gender inequality” since the Taliban takeover, despite promises they would pursue a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001. But many restrictions have already been imposed.

Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs. Women have also been banned from travelling alone and can only visit public gardens and parks in Kabul on days separate from men.

Last month, supreme leader and Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada said women should generally stay at home. They were ordered to conceal themselves completely, including their faces, should they need to go out in public.

Bachelet, who visited Afghanistan in March, described meeting women continuing to demand their rights despite “unimaginable challenges”. “Their situation is critical,” she said.

“Let me be clear: what we are witnessing today in Afghanistan is the institutionalised systematic oppression of women.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed the severe limits imposed on women’s freedom of movement “negatively impacts almost all aspects of their lives, including the ability of women and their children to access and to participate in health services, livelihood and humanitarian aid.”

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