The impact of COVID-19 on violence against women and girls in Afghanistan
Shahlla Matin - Afghanistan
Shahlla Matin, born in 1990 in Logar, Afghanistan is an environmental specialist who has just joined the World Bank Group (WBG) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, having previously worked for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). Shahlla holds a master’s degree in Sustainable Management of Pollution from ISA- Lille, France, and a bachelor’s degree in Natural Science from Kabul University, Afghanistan. She is an experienced environmentalist with a specialization in environmental impact assessment, pollution management of contaminated sites, and related environmental remediation strategies.
The outbreak of the coronavirus took everyone by surprise and threw the world into an unprecedented lockdown. After rolling out its action plan and ensuring the safety of its staff, almost all the offices took this global catastrophe as an opportunity to reflect on its working culture techniques and to explore alternatives.
In March 2020, one week before the government’s decision to put the provinces exposed to risk under lockdown, my-then office, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) in Kabul undertook appropriate measures to save lives. This action is reflective of our duty to avoid infecting others and mitigate health risks.
Personally, for me, working from home is a first-time experience, which not only proved to be effective but to some extent quite fun as well. During this time, I had the chance to explore the food-making factory (kitchen) and the world of botany (gardening). What I found very joyful about this experience is that sometimes when I have to attend online meetings or finish my work early in the day, my parents told me in a cheeky way: “today you returned very early from the office, I think there was no traffic” or when I woke up late, their reaction was: “You are late for office today”.
However, there were moments where we faced difficulties in coping with the situation, especially when it came to not having access to very basic and essential facilities such as water and electricity in Kabul. Personally from my experience as a girl, this situation took me back to the Taliban era which is somehow similar to that time, when people suffered from the same restrictions and that the girls were obliged to stay home and were restricted to indoor activities.
There is no doubt that the lack of basic services would affect family members’ mental health. On one side due to closed borders, the country has been lacking goods which has resulted in high price of available products in the market, water scarcity and absence of electricity and on the other, the collapse of the job market and people losing their employment due to the ensuing even greater economic crisis. However, the situation is different with wealthy families as they canfind alternative options to cope with the situation. In Afghanistan, the vast majority of people survive under the poverty line, which means that most families are in a bad condition concerning every area from mental and physical health to finances and living conditions . Matters are even worse in rural provinces and remote regions. In urban area, men generally rely on day to day labor which is their only source of income, so quarantine is an absolute nightmare for whole families. Here as in other developing countries, the pandemic has caused people lose to their jobs, experience inflation of food prices and lack of access to health services.
Afghanistan is one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman1. The pandemic has increased the already prevalent gender-based violence as tensions have risen with economic pressures and frustration caused by the lockdown and the enforced quarantine.
For instance,: one of our neighbors who has 5 children and, as is the custom, has his parents living with the family owned a small business of importing clothes from Pakistan and selling them in Afghanistan. During the pandemic he went bankrupt, as a consequence he is always yelling and beating his wife and children, and their voices can be heard throughout the neighbourhood. This is an extremely frequent situation.
Moreover in Kabul, electricity cuts lasting 12 hours out of 24 and more are habitual. This has kept reduced access to technology and other indoor hobbies and entertainments . Those working from home have been frequently unable to continue with their office work and of course their studies.
Lack of water in the boiling hot summer makes it even harder in everyday life. Housewives who are responsible for cooking and cleaning have to prepare food on time no matter if they have access to the appropriate facilities or not. Based on my personal experience, the times that we don't have water or electricity to wash dishes or clothes, we have to leave them for the next day and wait until power returns. During this waiting period, when my brother or father can't find clean clothes or clean plates, they show their irritation, even when they try to hide it, it is obvious from their irritated behavior. Despite coming from an educated family, which has always supported their women's rights, their attitude has put pressure on me and my mother, which consequently affects my work. So I have to make more time for chores and less time for my work. This has a negative effect on my morale, as I am behind my schedule and always worried about how to make time for my office work, let alone reading which I am unable to do.
Nevertheless the situation in my home is still much better than most other households. Both my father and brother take part in helping me and my mother in washing dishes, rinsing clothes and other daily chores. This is very unusual here as traditional Afghan men don’t take part in household activities which they consider dishonourable and only fit for women. Once when my brother was giving me a hand with the housework, a young male relative came by: he started laughing when he saw my brother and told him privately: "What you are doing is shameful, let the girls do what they are meant to do".
In Afghanistan, most girls after marriage have to live with their husband's family and have to do the housework and cooking for all members (on average 15 to 20 per household). This situation has naturally prevailed during the confinement and the issues have become more acute especially in small uncomfortable living quarters which are the norm in cities. The constant presence of men at home is challenging. To avoid their anger, women have to keep the children quiet at all times. Preserving a calm environment so as not to disturb resting men or elderly members of the family (including the mother-in-law) is difficult at the best of times. Men continue to be as demanding as before, choosing what they want to eat and reacting angrily when they don’t like what is served. It is harder to storm out and eat elsewhere in the pandemic. Because Afghan families usually no longer support their daughters once they are married, women have to put up with violence because they have nowhere to flee: this has become even worse during the pandemic, where many cases of depression and acute anxiety, resulting from pressure and increased physical violence have been reported and divorces filed.
During this lockdown I personally witnessed the case of several women who couldn’t bear to stay with their husband’s family, pleading to live separately from their extended family and only with their husband and children, something which is rare in Afghanistan.
Women and girls in most of the remote rural areas have suffered particularly. The tiny minority which had been able to access education has been deprived of schooling. Those who had the family's authorization to work outside the home have lost their jobs. Furthermore, women who had initiated small businesses went bankrupt.
Talking about the health services, I would like to highlight that all over the country people have been struggling to find any form of care. In most areas, it has been reported that warlords or local strong men have seized ventilators from hospitals by force and the poor have had to struggle with the virus until they died. The level of health care is more like during the Taliban era, as most e women are forced to stay at home and cannot get assistance from outside when they need it.
Furthermore, pregnant women (and their families) are afraid of seeking medical aid in hospital during the pandemic. For instance, the 28 year-old wife of a neighbor who was 3 months pregnant, suffered from high blood pressure. During the confinement her family didn’t bring her to hospital for a check-up, despite the fact that she fainted several times at home, until the last time when it took her a long time to regain consciousness. This forced the men of the family to take her to hospital where she had a miscarriage. Now this has severely affected her mental and physical health.
Despite many precautions, my family has not been able to save ourselves from the virus. Confined or not, we still have to go to the market to buy food and r necessary supplies. After four months in June 2020, government offices were reopened (most of the non-governmental organizations are still working from home such as AREU) but with some restrictions, such as scheduling employees to attend the office in two shifts on alternate day. This re-opening and only partial confinement have caused most people working in administration to bring the virus back home which resulted in my parents and me becoming sick, because of my brother going out to work. We struggled for weeks to overcome it with only pain killers and healthy food. This was a challenging time for all of us and is mostly due to not having access to advanced health care services in Kabul, as is the case for the whole country.
Moreover, not everyone can implement safety measures as prescribed by the Ministry of Public Health and the World Health Organization (WHO), especially families who rely on hand to mouth income from routine daily labor while many others struggle from the ongoing violent conflict between the government and the Taliban. In addition, due to closed borders, food shortage in the markets has been adding to the ongoing inflation crisis in the country. Nevertheless, the government, civil society and some individuals have initiated food distribution programs, which from the perspective of helping needy people d is good but on the other hand, such gatherings in a confined space can significantly increase the risk of the coronavirus spreading. Furthermore, most of the aid has been (illegally) grabbed up by men in power and warlords, and ordinary people have been left without any form of aid. This has added to the already alarming insecurity of our city: armed robberies and murder cases have increased dramatically.
These combined problems have directly affected men as providers and indirectly their usually very large family and dependents. A high level of everyday violence against women during the lockdown (2) has been one of the worst consequences all over the country. Due to movement restrictions at every level, women and girls find it challenging and difficult to seek rescue or help and to raise their voice.
Another challenging issue is the difficulty of raising public awareness about the virus. Since most of the provinces are not secure and the Taliban have been increasing their attacks, conducting awareness-raising activities is problematic. Lack of access to electricity and TV even to the radio in most rural areas has hugely limited such programs initiated by the government and other organizations. In addition, the closure of schools and universities during the lockdown and the lack of access to internet, computer and electricity, have resulted in most of the students staying home without continuing their studies. Moreover, the government of Afghanistan has not been sufficiently strict in taking measures to contain the spread of the virus. The latest governmental Loya Jirga (assembly of tribal elders) was a clear illustration of this fact: 17 parliamentarians contracted the virus at the end of this 3 day-long session.
Despite these challenges, the lockdown also yields some advantages. For instance, before the pandemic, whenever I used to step out of home to go to my office, my mother (like all parents) was concerned about the security situation, specially that lately the robberies and attacks on the street have increased: the whole day she worried if we (my father, brother and I) would return safely or not, as in Afghanistan you never know where and when the next explosion will occur. Therefore, during this lockdown, she keeps saying, " at least I feel relieved that everyone is home and safe".
Also, in Afghanistan, major cities face many environmental issues mainly because of the massive population increase. The arrival of internally displaced people (IDP) is increasing on a daily basis because of ongoing conflicts in the provinces or natural hazards; their villages have become insecure because of the constant fighting and their houses have been destroyed by floods, landslides and much more. This population flow towards cities has caused several environmental problems and increased urban pollution from cars (usually old with leaking exhaust pipes), usage of nonstandard fuels, using wood for cooking and heating as well as the dumping of waste in the streets, ongoing non-standard construction work and blockage of sewage system due to the massive use of plastic.
Here is the only positive aspect of the lockdown: people stay home, the quality of the air has improved and we are finally able to see a clean blue sky. Now that traffic congestion is so reduced, it takes only minutes to reach places which normally need hours to get there.
While health and other priorities have shifted to responding to the Covid-19 crisis, at the same time, our government is trying to negotiate with the Taliban and bring them back to power, a situation which can only worsen the oppression of women in Afghanistan. In the latest Loya Jirga, a female senator (Bilquis Roshan) was shouted down and manhandled when she protested that any peace treaty with the Taliban is to be considered national treason which would not only disrupt the situation in the country (making the consequences of the Covid 19 even worse and long-lasting) but is a direct threat to the hard-earned women’s rights in Afghanistan. our situation is terrible from every angle.
Growing up as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan until the age of 14, when my family returned to Afghanistan after the end of the Taliban regime, I was reintroduced to a country where women were treated as second-class citizens. During this time, thanks to the exceptionally open-minded mentality of my family, I had the opportunity to travel to different provinces, Asian and European countries, and study to become what I am today, a highly qualified environmental engineering expert. This made me gain extensive experience of how women are treated in different societies. I came to realize the extent of restrictions that Afghan women are facing from their family, environment and society at large. In most of the remote areas of the country, such as Farah where senator Roshan described above comes from, even now, despite progress in Kabul, women still experience high levels of extreme and daily violence, with or without the Taliban. In a country such as ours, when you add to this sudden and extreme restrictions on every level stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ominously probable return of the Taliban, it is even more difficult for women and girls to raise their voice against systemic oppression and fight for their rights.
United States Institute of Peace, “Coronavirus Complicates an Already Dire Situation for Afghan Women” (USIP: June 2020). https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/06/coronavirus-complicates-already-dire-situation-afghan-women;
2 UNWOMEN, “Issue V: Maintaining services for survivors of violence against women and girls during COVID-19” (UNWOMEN: May 2020). https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eseasia/docs/publications/2020/05/gender%20alert%20issue5%20210520.pdf?la=en&vs=2833;