While Afghanistan prepares to battle the second wave of COVID-19, girls have more significant concerns to worry about: their failing dreams and anaemia.
For a society that has struggled hard to achieve a 43.02% increase in its literacy rate despite an ongoing war, the pandemic has only pulled them back for worse and longer.
While the Coronavirus continues to take lives, the plight of Afghan women and girls caused by the lockdown is becoming more invisible.
Being stuck at home has not only resulted in a loss of time from their academic years, but has also increased the burden of work and societal pressures upon them. Pushing them towards an abyss of physical and mental breakdown.
Most of the Afghans were employed on a daily wage, taken away from them by the lockdown. Manizha Sadat, a Kabul citizen and a web developer at Womanity Foundation, shared her family’s struggles;
“During the lockdown, there was a shortage of food in the bazaar. I was doing okay but my sister, cousins and aunt were short of funds, because they were at home, without any jobs and did not have money to buy essential cosmetics for themselves. My aunt has a three- months old son, she could not afford diapers and other baby products for him.”
Closure of schools has hampered the progress of female education in the country. The Afghan government instructed schools to teach online, neglecting that not many students can afford to buy smartphones or have had a consistent supply of electricity.
“The Afghan government did come up with distance learning programmers taught via television and radio broadcasts. But, they were not enough for all students as they covered very general topics,” commented, Dr. Aria, founder of Tabish Social Health Educational Organization.
Since most of the country’s population still has limited access to formal education, students, especially children, find it challenging to seek help related to their subjects from their elders, which has only widened the gap in the country’s literacy progress.
But the most significant implication of school closure on girls is long hours of exposure to household chores.
“Women face a double catastrophe. One is that the entire country lives in a catastrophe due to the war, but women live in their own world of catastrophe,” said Ezzatullah Mehrdad, a freelance journalist based in the country.
“The lockdown made women and children the most vulnerable group of people. This division of labour among men and women has been that, women do house-work and men do the outside work. When the lockdown happened, women were automatically made to go back to that old pattern of doing the house-work. At this time, a generation of girls grew up, because they were seeing what they were expected to do. And, they were forced by the lockdown and by the country’s social factors to do the house-work,” he said.
According to UNICEF Afghanistan’s report, one in three adolescent girls suffer from anaemia in the country, which constitutes one million girls already being under the threat of iron deficiency.
Manizha described the health conditions of women in her surroundings as “not so good”.
“Most of them, I can say, are anaemic. They don’t have any good knowledge of how to eat or what type of foods is good for their health. They were eating everything that they found, their immune system is very weak. Most of them are losing their hair, as they are not drinking milk, and most don’t know its benefits. This is common in even educated women, Afghan women are frail compared to women in other countries,” she expressed.
Schools were a medium for the Ministry of Public Health and UNICEF to reach out to girls and provide them with iron and folic supplementation. There is also a high deficit of Vitamin D among Afghan females, which was also being tackled through a supplements distribution drive.
Unfortunately, these problems are only the tip of the iceberg. A report by World Vision International, suspects a rise in child marriages because of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, 57% of Afghan girls were married off, before the age of 19. This figure is likely to have increased, as families cannot afford their household expenses, forcing their daughters to tie the knot, as soon as possible.
An anaemic mother is the most susceptible to excruciating labour, premature birth and death during childbirth. While the country is facing a forty- year-long conflict and pandemic at the same time, their already fragile health care system is struggling hard to keep up with both. On 12th May 2020, a 55-bed government-run hospital situated in Dasht-e-Barichi (South-west of Kabul, Afghanistan) was brutally attacked. “It was a systematic shooting of Mothers”, said Fredric Bonnot, Programme head of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who were assisting the hospital with healthcare at that time.
“In August, the Health Ministry conducted a research on COVID-19, and found that ten million Afghans had coronavirus anti-bodies, out of which 55% of this population were women“, said Ezzatullah. Despite the government providing door to door treatment for COVID-19 patients, their data speaks volumes about women not reporting coronavirus symptoms. One of the possible barriers is less availability of female workers in the country that may have refrained women from society’s most conservative areas from seeking medical care.
But the least prioritised of all issues is the declining mental health of Afghan females.
The World Health Organization estimated 90% of Afghan women have suffered at least one form of domestic violence.
“The lockdown took away many jobs from families, that frustrated their fathers or husbands, who are now always at home and take out their anger on their children. There has been an increase in domestic abuse against women and children lately,” said Dr. Aria, who has been running various psychosocial counselling programs for women through his NGO- Tabish.
However, he agrees that the virus outbreak has made it very difficult for his team to reach out to help at this time.
The Afghan Human Rights Commission has ascertained that 3000 Afghans take their lives every year, 80% of whom are females.
Sophia Cousins, a health journalist based in Afghanistan, reported escalating cases of women being admitted to hospitals for consuming poison.
Ezzatullah describes the entire country as suffering from a mental health crisis from a very long time because of the ongoing war. The pandemic has only added to the existing adversity and made girls particularly vulnerable.
“When Covid-19 hit the country, the schools were a safe place for girls as they offered them refuge from the outside world that was brutal, was closed for them. For one year, the lockdown denied them the experience of meeting their companions or enjoyment of reading new books. Even on television, they hear about news of war and bombing, placing them under multiple layers of mental trauma.”
Contrary to the standard narrative about Afghanistan being a conservative society, which does not want to educate its girls. Manizha and Ezzatullah both detailed out the opposite.
“Things are changing, most Afghans do want to see their daughters study well. However, it is possible only if their schools have toilets and more female teachers that parents can trust,” said Ezzatullah.
Even if the schools re-open, there is a high chance of female dropouts. Poor sanitation and unclean water are likely to force many girls to make the ultimate choice between their health or aspirations.