The Taliban's discrimination against women is a crime against humanity, according to the UN's special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, who called on the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute Afghanistan's leaders.
The former British prime minister said women have suffered most since the fall of Kabul, which led to the Taliban takeover and exclusion of women from education, employment and even public places.
“Of course, all these bans are a form of discrimination. It's probably the most heinous, the most vicious, the most comprehensive abuse of human rights that's taking place around the world today,” he told Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday morning.
“And it is systematically being inflicted on millions of girls and women across Afghanistan. And that's why the United Nations and others are calling it gender discrimination.
“Some call it gender apartheid, and that's why it's seen as a crime against humanity.
“And it's right then for the International Criminal Court, which has responsibility for dealing with crimes against humanity, to both investigate and to prosecute those people … responsible for this crime.”
Mr Brown's comments came as the two-year anniversary approaches of the fall of Kabul and the return of Taliban rule following the withdrawal of Western troops.
Its leaders initially promised a more moderate rule than during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
But the group has since steadily imposed the same extreme interpretation of Islamic law on women and girls, with ever greater restrictions on their freedoms.
Nursing is now almost the only vocation still open to women effectively living under house arrest.
Afghan women and mental health experts have said many women, particularly in urban areas, who gained opportunities in education and work during the 20-year presence of foreign troops and a Western-backed government, are now struggling with a deep sense of despair and mental health challenges.
Mr Brown said the evidence against the Taliban's mistreatment of women since the takeover is overwhelming and the UN is preparing to publish an opinion in the next few days as to whether its mistreatment constitutes a crime against humanity in law.
The Labour former prime minister, who was in office from 2007 to 2010, added: “It's very clear that although it's never been prosecuted before, gender discrimination is under the laws of the rules, a crime against humanity.
“In this case, I think the evidence is absolutely overwhelming,” he added.
Mr Brown said Muslim majority countries leaders and religious clerics “have the biggest role to play”.
“And I would like to persuade them to undertake a big delegation to Afghanistan to meet the clerics and not just the political leaders, to explain to them that Islam is of course a religion that values girls and women's rights, and to press them into removing these bans on education and on employment that is so discriminatory.
“And as one girl reported to me, you know, 'I'm alive but not living', she said. 'We are denied all the basic rights'.”
He said it was possible to prosecute the Taliban while continuing to speak to them. And both the US and UK have sent diplomats to speak to the group.
“That dialogue can continue. But the pressure has got to be that if they're not prepared to move, we will step up,” he added.
Fatima Gailani, a veteran peace negotiator and political activist from Afghanistan, said the Taliban needs to urgently wake up to the fact that their current system of governance is doomed to fail in the long-term.
In an interview with The National, she urged the Taliban government in Kabul to open up dialogue with voices calling for wider representation for women and ethnic minorities and usher in a fairer system of governance.
“The time has come when we should sit down and start a proper political process,” she said. “We need a meaningful engagement with the Taliban. The thing we all agree on is that armed conflict cannot be the solution for the nation’s problems.”
She said she had countless conversations with Taliban members in Doha through the years and heard some of their “eye-opening” accounts of detention in Guantanamo Bay.
Ms Gailani previously served as president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society.