Don’t wait to mourn; join hands to support women’s rights in Afghanistan
March is Women’s History Month, when the world celebrates women’s achievements, acknowledge their sacrifices and promote their empowerment. Why these actions should be limited to one month, or one day (March 8), is a different conversation. The purpose of this post is to shed light on a group of women who are slowly disappearing into the darkness.
Three months into 2022, Afghan women see little hope as the country continues to spiral into an abyss. Today, women in Afghanistan lack adequate access to healthcare, education, employment, freedom of movement and most basic human rights. Women who were leading full lives this time last year – getting educated, in a job, enjoying a social life – have become prisoners in their own homes.
Since taking control of the country, the Taliban have replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with a Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Donor-funded projects on women’s empowerment have been shut as increasing restrictions on women were imposed. In January 2022, the Taliban banned women in northern Afghanistan from communal bath houses (hammams) – an ancient tradition that often is the only chance for a warm bath in the winter. After the Taliban’s takeover the wellbeing of some groups of women is being completely ignored: female prisoners, women in protection centres, or divorcees, to name a few.
The constitution of the World Health Organisation (WHO) proclaims the right to a “highest attainable standard of health”, something highly abstract in a country with a healthcare system on the verge of collapse. Afghans have always been poorly serviced: according to the United Nations, the country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
Since the Taliban took control, women’s access to healthcare has been further restricted. Leading up to August 2021, several incidents were reported of female healthcare workers being attacked, shot or killed (March 2021, June 2021, August 2021). Women briefly lost all access to all healthcare when the Taliban banned women from working – as male doctors were not allowed to treat female patients. Although clinics have been closed and medical staff not paid in months, currently female doctors travel from district to district, attending to as many women as possible. Some midwives have been allowed to do home visits as long as they are accompanied by a male escort. (Midwives’ contribution to women’s health deserves a separate blog altogether.)
In December 2021, the WHO sent a team to Afghanistan for five weeks to investigate medical emergencies. They urged immediate action to address the “imminent humanitarian catastrophe” based on what they found in the capital, Kabul. The team could not investigate healthcare in every province or in remote areas. Considering the impact on women’s health of restrictions imposed on women’s travel and right to work, the situation in some parts of Afghanistan may be worse than what is being reported.
Heroic tales of female medical staff in the 1990s, under Taliban rule, who attended to women in labour on the floor in their houses, and who survived and thrived and started their own medical clinics to provide proper and systematic care to the public, have reached an anticlimactic end.
Afghanistan’s first girls’ school opened in 1921 in Kabul – extremist religious and cultural views having always driven women to fight for their rights. In the past 20 years, a small breathing space opened for women to establish schools, even in rural areas that still had a strong Taliban presence. Rights activists found ways to ensure that girls got their education, even if it meant going from house to house, speaking to parents about sending their girls to school. For women’s rights activists, educating young girls was never a job. It was a passion, an investment for the future, and every threat they received spurred them to do more.
Only primary schools for girls opened, along with boys’ schools, after the Taliban took over in 2021. Although the Taliban pledged that the secondary schools for girls would open on 22 March 2022, they reversed that decision at the last minute, as they had not yet decided on the uniform the girls should wear. Teenage girls remain locked out of schools. In February 2022, universities opened for female undergraduates in six of 34 provinces, with strict dress codes and rules for separate classes; lack of female lecturers has, though, been a challenge. What happens after these students graduate remains an unanswered question.
Freedom from discrimination
Discrimination comes in various forms and degrees. Some 80 percent of the people who have been internally displaced since Taliban attacks escalated in 2021 are women, with a record number of female civilian casualties in 2020 and 2021. In a country where almost half the of the population lives below the poverty line with damning predictions of this number increasing up to 97 percent, severe levels of food insecurities, women and girls are facing new risk levels every day. Many women’s activists have gone into hiding for the fear of capture, torture or death.
Those who can protest have taken to the streets. The first protests against the Taliban were held on 4 September 2021, four days after the US military left Kabul airport. Women who protested were beaten and harassed. On 7 September, the second protest day, three demonstrators in Herat Province were killed. The following day, the Taliban banned protests.
Yet, peaceful protests have continued. Six activists, five of them female, were forcibly taken by the Taliban after demonstrating on 16 January. Their demand was for the Taliban to respect women’s rights.
Do not wait to act
Afghan women had a different life prior to the Taliban rule in the 1990s: they attended university and held jobs. In Afghanistan today lives a generation of women who remembers that history, pre-Taliban, pre-Soviet invasion even. There is another generation of women who experienced the Taliban’s coming into power, fled the country and got educated in neighbouring countries as refugees, and returned to Afghanistan post-2001 to rebuild their country. These women became politicians, activists, journalists, entrepreneurs – the sky was the limit, in their view. Then there are the girls born in the last 20 years, who are barely out of their teens, and who are subjected to horrors they have no control over.
The plight of these young women deserves global attention and solidarity. Do not wait to mourn their loss; take action. Demand from your parliamentary representatives that they use every leverage possible to ensure for women in Afghanistan a dignified life, the right to education and a job, and the restoration of their human rights.
Yasasmin Kaviratne is a Policy Leader Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance. After working as a human rights activist and journalist for 14 years in Sri Lanka, she is now with Amnesty International’s regional office in South Asia.