On the evening of December 26, Najmussama Shefajo’s family had gathered to celebrate an engagement. But while her family danced and sang, one of Kabul’s most well-known gynaecologists was furiously fielding voice notes and WhatsApp messages from colleagues.
They were worried about the future of a women-centred NGO they were in the process of launching and of the Afghan Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Afsoc), an organisation that focuses on training and supporting more than 2,000 doctors across the country.
It had been two days since the Taliban’s acting Minister of Economy announced that Afghan women were no longer allowed to work in either local or foreign NGOs in Afghanistan, but there was still no clarity about exactly what the edict meant.
“We are trying to figure out if it means we can’t even have a woman’s name on the NGO licence,” Dr Shefajo said as messages came pouring in. Adding to their confusion was a statement from the acting Minister of Public Health, saying the ban does not affect the health sector.
However, Dr Shefajo and her team point out that the licences for Afsoc and the new NGO both come from the Ministry of Economy, while the ban order is being implemented by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, not the Ministry of Public Health.
“People’s lives depend on these answers, so we’re trying to meet with everyone,” Dr Shefajo said.
Her team says the lack of clarity on what is and is not permissible is especially important for organisations like theirs that deal specifically with health care.
Shahrbanoo Akbarzada, a 26-year-old doctor and member of Afsoc, says the services and training they provide to expectant mothers and doctors are vital to preserving the lives of mothers and newborns, but for the past week thousands across Afghanistan have been left without that information.
“All of our work has been for women, by women, and it is women who will suffer when we can’t work,” Dr Akbarzada said from a private maternity clinic in Kabul. This work ranges from training doctors on how to prevent perineal lacerations during childbirth to informing expectant mothers on nutrition, mental health issues and early detection of breast cancer, she said.
Dr Akbarzada says Afsoc’s “entire vision” was centred around reducing maternal and neonatal maternity death rates in Afghanistan. The UN estimates that 638 out of every 100,000 women in Afghanistan die in childbirth, one of the highest rates in the world.
A day after the Ministry of Economy’s decision was released, international organisations such as the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Care International and Islamic Relief all announced that they would halt their work in Afghanistan until all female staff are able to return to work, but Dr Akbarzada says health organisations cannot afford to do that.
“We took an oath as health providers not to let politics get in the way of our work, to never refuse a patient in our hospitals, and now even in our NGOs we can’t just shut down our services, because it all comes back to people’s health.”
She fears that so many aid organisations halting their work will only exacerbate the suffering of the Afghan people, who are struggling against the weight of international sanctions, banking restrictions and aid cutbacks that have all led to increased unemployment and higher prices for everyday goods such as food and gas.
In a joint statement, the NRC, Care International and Save the Children pointed out that beyond the impact on delivery of lifesaving assistance, the Taliban ban would “affect thousands of jobs in the midst of an enormous economic crisis”.
Dr Akbarzada says that as someone with a medical degree, she is fortunate. She can still earn money by working in hospitals and clinics, but she fears for other women working at organisations such as Afsoc. “The cleaner in our office is a widow, she has five children and no other breadwinner in her household; what will she do, how will she feed and warm her children in the cold winter?”
One female aid worker who wished to remain anonymous says the ban on Afghan women working at NGOs and the ban on university education that preceded it are already affecting the mental health of women she has been in contact with in recent days.
The aid worker, who has been working in the NGO sector for 24 years, says she has been in contact with a woman who has no husband or brothers and is responsible for putting food on the table for half a dozen other people.
“She told me she’s so depressed she wants to kill herself. What do we tell her, how do we reassure her?” the aid worker said.
Despite her sadness and confusion, Dr Akbarzada says she has taken solace in the fact that “today’s Afghans are not the same people as those in the 1990s” when the Taliban first ruled the country for five years.
“Back then, the Taliban said women couldn’t work or go to school, they said every woman must wear a chadari [burqa]. That every man had to grow a beard and wear a turban, and people just accepted it,” she said of the period between 1996 and 2001.
Today, however, Dr Akbarzada has seen signs that the Afghan people will stand up for the rights they gained in the two decades before the Taliban seized power last year.
“We have women in Khost calling us, saying their men are telling them to go out and protest,” she said of messages she has been receiving from the south-eastern province that was one of the first to protest against the Taliban ban on women attending university, announced a few days before the NGO ban.