Where we empower women: Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, people have been suffering for decades as the result of war and terror. Some 25 million Afghans out of the population of 33 million are living in poverty, and many are starving. According to a UN report more than half of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance. In particular, the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan deteriorated drastically in August 2021 as the Taliban took power.
It took only a few months for the mostly male Islamists to put in place unparalleled restrictions on the self-determination of women and girls. In spite of their initial promises to respect women’s rights within Sharia law, the Taliban issued decrees that prevent women and girls from exercising their basic rights to freedom of expression, liberty and education. Afghans who do take to the streets to protest for their rights are being threatened, arrested and tortured. Women’s rights activists report there have been detentions, forced marriages and rapes.
After the intervention of NATO forces in 2001, female activists fought for and achieved significant legislative progress. Unfortunately, even before the Taliban took power in August 2021, many of these state sanctioned rights had never actually been implemented in practice. Patriarchal structures, religious fundamentalism and corruption all prevented the laws from being upheld.
Under the Taliban, this lack of rights for women then became government policy: women were once again excluded from public life. Their access to civil rights and liberties was radically cut. As a woman before 2021 it was not at all easy to openly pursue an alternative life vision such as independence or homosexuality, but now it is impossible. Women’s rights activists face huge threats. Nonetheless, Afghan women continue to resist the violence and fundamentalism of the Taliban.
“For now, I wish for the women of my land to be empowered, patient and not disappointed, and I want them not to lose their spirit of struggle and righteousness. A little patience, dawn is near!”
medica mondiale is helping the staff from its partner organisations and women’s rights defenders to find safe places to stay and to flee Afghanistan with their families. With our projects and local partner organisations we are focussing on acute needs such as security and psychosocial support for women and girls. In order to identify further opportunities to provide support, we are in dialogue with women’s rights activists within and outside the country.
The Taliban issued a series of decrees and guidelines that violate the human rights of women and girls, including the right to freedom of movement. Women are not allowed to use public transport unless they are in the company of a male relative classed as a mahram. In general, they are only allowed to leave their house for urgent matters and have to wear full veils if they do. Women who disobey the dress code put their male relatives at risk of imprisonment. Presenters on TV news programmes have to wear a full veil during the broadcast.
There are almost no contact points now for survivors of sexualised violence to turn to. The nationwide system of support built up by women’s rights activists in the previous 20 years has almost completed collapsed: safe houses were closed and threats were made against staff of organisations offering protection and advice. Since 2009, 22 cases of maltreatment of women had been brought under the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW Law), but this no longer has any validity. As the Taliban swept through the country seizing power in 2021 they systematically released prisoners, many of whom had been imprisoned for committing acts of gender-based violence.
Even before the victory of the Taliban, one in three girls were being forced into marriage before their 18th birthday. This high number has increased further since 2021.The humanitarian crisis in the country is having a particularly severe impact on families with lots of children. In order to avoid starvation, ever more parents are turning to the patriarchal tradition of marrying off their young daughters in return for a dowry.
Additionally, some families are resorting to marrying their daughters early to protect them from the possibility of being forced to marry a Taliban fighter. The Islamists are repeatedly forcing families to give them their unmarried daughters as brides. Other families actually choose to marry off their daughter to a Talib in order to gain protection for the family. Although the Taliban issued a decree in December 2021 to prohibit forced marriages, this is not protecting the girls.
”Many young girls are at risk of forced marriage as the famine raging in Afghanistan drives people to desperation – they sell their daughters in the hope of at least saving the rest of their family from starvation.“
By 2021, the proportion of 10-year-old girls going to school was almost 60 per cent. Among 15-year-old girls, only 30 per cent were still attending secondary education and 80 per cent of girls with some form of physical impairment had no access to education. It was, however, not the case that the state was officially putting barriers in the way of girls attending school. One of the first political acts of the Taliban, however, was to forbid girls in many provinces from going to secondary schools. Currently there are only a few secondary schools who still offer lessons to girls. Without education, girls face an even higher risk of being exploited, maltreated or married off early. Their chances of later studying or finding a good job then disappear.
The opportunities for young Afghan women to study at university are also extremely restricted. They can only attend seminars if their university offers gender-segregated instruction. With their harassment measures, such as dress codes and restricting movement, and the gender-specific violence, the Taliban are creating a climate of fear which further discourages and obstructs young women from gaining education. And if they protest, they are then expelled from their courses.
“All girls should be allowed to go to schools and universities. All women should be allowed to return to their work without any delays and preconditions to continue their work in whichever capacity they were working before August 2021.”
Since the Taliban regained power most of the women who had gone out to work are now staying at home: some are allowed to go to work, but only in the company of a male relative (mahram), and others were simply fired. The fear of repression led 84 per cent of the female journalists to stop working by August 2022. Female lawyers and judges have mostly been excluded from their work and are suffering severely under the restrictions.
Humanitarian projects are urgently needed in Afghanistan, but women working in this field and in the education and health sectors have frequently also been hindered in their work. For example, female doctors are not permitted to treat male patients or discuss their work with their male colleagues. And many women with a good education or training had to leave the country.
Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, Afghan women have been on the frontline of the resistance against Taliban oppression. They have been protesting peacefully, calling for equality, their rights, justice and peace. And they continue these protests in spite of the brutal beatings, arrests, imprisonments and abductions they face from the Taliban.
With the help of a quota regulation before the Taliban regime took power, women formed 27 per cent of the Members of Parliament in Afghanistan. Across the country, 21 per cent of all defence counsel were women and 265 judges were female out of a total of 1,951. Now there is not one single woman as minister in the new Afghan government.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been abolished. In its place, the Taliban has once again set up the infamous Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice which enforces the misogynist decrees of the regime.
Although maternal mortality could be reduced continually in the years after 1990, it was still one of the highest in the world in 2020. The causes of these deaths include young maternal age, vitamin deficiency and poor medical care during the pregnancy. Only about one half of all births are supervised by midwives or doctors. Four out of ten children die before their first birthday. Considering the humanitarian crisis and the restrictions on movement and work faced by women, these figures will surely increase again.
The mainly Shiite Hazaras have been subjected to discrimination and racism for a long time but it has increased since the Taliban seized power. Women and girls in particular are affected by multiple forms of discrimination and violence.
Many beatings and attacks have been deliberately targeted at women and girls of the Hazara ethnic minority, including attacks on girls’ schools and educational establishments. Activists are raising awareness of this ‘silent genocide’, and courageous Hazar women repeatedly hold demonstrations on the streets of various Afghan cities to protest against the injustices.
The lives of LGBTIQ+ people have also deteriorated dramatically under the Taliban, whose openly anti-LGBTIQ+ attitude has manifested in a series of assaults on gays, lesbians and other people whose behaviour does not conform to traditional gender norms.
(Status of: 10/2022)
”We want to build a bridge between the local activists and those outside the country, continuing our efforts to uphold women’s and human rights in Afghanistan. A network of women for women – that is our aim for the future.“
”As Regional Manager for Afghanistan and Northern Iraq, my central aim now is to work with Afghan women's rights activists to find new ways of working in Afghanistan and to continue to support women and girls“.
In more than twenty years, our partner organisation provided psychosocial and legal advice to thousands of women affected by violence, Counsellors helped them gain strength and to go through life with dignity. Lawyers ensured that imprisoned women received a fair legal process and were released. Other women were able to gain compensation payments for suffering inflicted upon them.
Empathic support in difficult situations
Stress- and trauma-sensitive support strengthened the self-esteem of women. They and their concerns were taken seriously, and they realised that every woman has rights: this is true under Islamic law, under national law and under the Universal Human Rights. They learnt how to assert their needs within their families and to look after themselves. This experience will carry through into the times of crisis, too.
Tireless campaigning, media work and awareness-raising in a range of different groups in society, as well as in different professional sectors, all ensured that our partner organisation was able to influence and improve the public debate on women’s rights and violence against women in Afghanistan. The very fact that this debate took place, with impacts that can still be felt, is certainly one of the greatest achievements of the past 20 years.
Training on various aspects of women’s rights and violence against women was provided to numerous people in a range of sectors by medica mondiale and local female specialists over a period of years. The aim of these programmes was not only to increase knowledge, but also to effect changes in awareness and behaviour. These impacts will not be entirely lost under the new regime since women working in the healthcare and education sectors will still be able to apply and further develop what they learnt.
In the past 20 years, strong networks have formed among Afghan activists. These are based on specialist expertise, common political convictions and personal relationships. The new ruling powers will not be able to wipe this out. Activists in exile and those in the country will build on their shared experiences, and new structures for cooperation will emerge.
Significant political experience
In recent years, women’s rights defenders have gained extensive experience on political processes in local and transnational committees and bodies. They were able to build up networks and conduct discussions with high-ranking politicians. They became familiar with the ways they can respect both their demands and their limits, representing these to others and asserting their rights.
Just a set-back: The struggle for women’s rights continues
Together with like-minded supporters, dedicated activists worked tirelessly to achieve the passing of laws and regulations intended to prevent and punish violence against women. They know that it is possible to negotiate successfully in spite of situations of extreme imbalances of power. We and they have suffered a nasty set-back, but our joint work will continue.
medica mondiale has been working for 20 years in Afghanistan. The programme in the initial years led to the emergence of an independent Afghan women’s organisation. medica mondiale worked closely with them and provided advice and consultancy on specialist topics and issues of organisation. In spite of all the difficulties and resistance, the activists were able to assist women affected by violence and fight for societal change – and the German government supported this. Then their lives were put at risk when the Taliban seized power in 2021.
medica mondiale demands: The German government needs to finally live up to its political responsibility and enable further vulnerable activists to flee to Germany. medica mondiale is doing everything it can to continue supporting women in Afghanistan. For this purpose, we continue to consider the feasibility of various other measures to support women’s rights activists and protect women and children from violence.
”We need international organizations to contribute to the Afghan women’s movement with funding as well as technical and moral support. I believe women’s organizations are the only spaces left for Afghan women and girls to come together.“
medica mondiale worked closely with its partner organisations to develop the Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach (STA). Based on their practical and local experiences, medica mondiale provided frequent training in this approach for the counsellors in Afghanistan during the past 20 years.
Psychosocial counselling for activists
As part of a project with AWPFO – Afghan Women's Peace and Freedom Organization – medica mondiale is tackling the urgent need for psychosocial counselling of particularly vulnerable women. The target group includes human rights defenders, peace activists, civil society activists as well as journalists, defence lawyers, state prosecutors, teachers and university tutors.
The provision of psychosocial counselling is intended to help strengthen their psychological health and well-being. The need for this type of counselling has increased strongly since the Taliban seized power. medica mondiale is providing specialist advice to AWPFO as they implement stress- and trauma-sensitive offers.
Together with our partner organisation Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO) in Afghanistan, we are empowering the local civil society and offering protection and support for vulnerable human rights defenders.
With the Afghan organisation WJO – Women for Justice – we are running a programme to train lawyers. The aim is to transfer to the future lawyers the knowledge they need on topics such as women’s rights and the practical legal skills to uphold those rights. In turn, this will ensure justice for women in court and reinforce protection for human rights.
Stress- and trauma-sensitive legal advice
Until mid-2021, the legal assistance project at our Afghan partner organisation offered women free stress- and trauma-sensitive legal advice. Often this was the first time that women even realised they have rights.
As part of the support for a project, medica mondiale is assisting a programme to stabilise Afghan women’s organisations. The aim here is to ensure they can continue their work safely under the present conditions. medica mondiale is making available the appropriate resources for strategic further development and for planning and implementation of offers of assistance for women and girls in Afghanistan.
(Status „Focal points of work“ of: 07/2022)
”The media and all people can give Afghan women a platform. Make our voices heard and share our painful messages until the world understands!“
”The international community can act as a pressure force on the Taliban and they should invite active Afghan women to every meeting about Afghanistan, and afghan women should be involved in every decision about their homeland and destiny. No foreign woman can represent Afghan women.“
“I believe that the international media can ensure that Afghanistan is highlighted in their news and to keep the country on the media. Isolation and ignoring by the media is very dangerous. It can allow the Taliban to continue with their atrocities and gender apartheid rule without fear of accountability. Media is one of the ways to hold Taliban to account and to show them that the world is watching you.”