Last week, the women and girls of Afghanistan were dealt another low blow when their hopes to return to secondary school were dashed. Seven months after the withdrawal of foreign forces, collapse of the government, takeover by the Taliban and economic paralysis, their one hope remaining has been ruined.
More than half of the 23 million people in Afghanistan suffering acute food insecurity are women and girls. They are suffering the immeasurable and inhumane physical and mental burden of hunger and discrimination. Adolescent girls are locked out of school, women are unable to work. They rightly wonder if they are being punished even though they have had so little say in their fate.
In advance of the UN pledging conference on Afghanistan, to be held on March 31, I urge the international community to reassure the women and girls of Afghanistan that they have not been left to fend for themselves. Support the UN to alleviate the dreadful suffering of hunger with levels of resources commensurate to the needs. Support us to keep women and girls’ dreams and voices alive. Support us by boosting livelihoods and resilience programmes, nutrition, education and school meals; programmes shaped in and owned by the communities for their communities. These are programmes that bring hope and potential and with this the possibility of a pathway to stability and prosperity, a peace dividend for Afghanistan and all its people equally.
Since August 2021, we have witnessed a crisis of unprecedented scale and depth engulf Afghanistan and its people. Widespread hunger has gripped the country with equal severity in rural and urban areas. Mothers across the country are witnessing their young children fall ill to malnutrition. I met many of these mothers sitting at the edge of an overcrowded bed in overcrowded hospital wards praying that their children would pull through. They are mothers struggling to understand how peace after so many decades of war could be like this. In February, almost 400,000 children under the age of five have been treated for malnutrition, up from 150,000 in January.
Afghanistan is, sadly, home to the highest percentage of widows in the world. It is estimated that there are over 700,000 of them, according to the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey published by the country’s previous government. Women, young and old, struggle to raise a family alone – the price of war, the price of inhumanity. Many young, educated women are the only bread winners in their households.
These women, mothers and daughters – often the heads of their households – are impacted most by the nexus of economic shocks, drought and ideological barbarity. The UN World Food Programme’s most recent rapid food security assessment found that female-headed households are struggling the most. Many of these households (85 per cent) are resorting to drastic measures to feed their families, compared to 62 per cent for male-headed households. With each passing month of the crisis, incomes continue to drop, diet quality decreases and the amount of food consumed at household level reduces.
Nowruz, the new solar year and the first day of spring, was celebrated on March 21. With spring comes new life and crop seeds bursting through the earth, growing and maturing before the harvest, which is expected in June and July. The harvest is still three months way, and it will bring some relief for those fortunate enough to have access to seeds. But much of it is already mortgaged, as households borrow against it to feed their families. The humanitarian crisis is not over, as there has been no let-up on the economic crisis.
Yes, the discussions and debates on Afghanistan are complex and challenging, no more so than after the events of recent days. We must and will continue to advocate and challenge for the rights of women and girls. The young girls turned away from school last week and the rest of the children of Afghanistan must be allowed to flourish and grow for sake of the country. The international community cannot and must not reduce its support to the people of Afghanistan.
The WFP continues to scale up its programmes across country. The world must help us push back the scourge of hunger and malnutrition to save lives. It must help us continue with critical resilience and school meals programmes to change lives for the wellbeing and prosperity of the people of Afghanistan.
“You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise”. I hope the words of the wonderful woman and poet Maya Angelou might yet prove true for the women and girls of Afghanistan.