Afghan women may die because of 'Taliban gender rules'

'We're being told that we shouldn't allow female patients to see male doctors,' Save the Children says

An Afghan solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square, London, to oppose the Taliban. PA
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Afghan women and girls could die because of gender rules imposed by the Taliban, which block medical aid funded by the UK, a charity has warned.

Under new rules, women can only be treated by women, but the safety of female medics to work has not been guaranteed by Taliban leaders, Save the Children campaigns director Athena Rayburn said.

Ms Rayburn said charities must secure permission from provincial leaders before their female staff can provide assistance in the area.

“Even with our mobile health teams, we're being told that we shouldn't allow female patients to see male doctors,” she said.

“If we can't ensure the protection for our female staff, those people will not receive services and it will lead to loss of life. That's devastating, and something that's entirely preventable.”

About 5.5 million people are displaced in Afghanistan and “the vast majority of them” are women and children, Ms Rayburn said.

Save the Children has seen a large increase in the number of malnourished children needing urgent care, she said.

“It's a really perfect storm of humanitarian catastrophe,” Ms Rayburn said. “And it's certainly getting worse and being compounded by the continuing issues around getting cash into the country.”

She said only about 17 per cent of the 2,300 World Bank-funded health centres in Afghanistan have been operational since the Taliban took over.

“Typically, in humanitarian budgets, education is not funded because it's not seen as life-saving," Ms Rayburn said.

"From our experience, education is categorically life-saving and especially for vulnerable groups, such as girls.

“In many cases, it can literally be a safe place that their parents know their children will be for a number of hours a day, that will allow them to go out and work.

“Education is chronically underfunded in the humanitarian budget. There's so much reconstruction and peace-building and reconciliation that needs to happen.

“How we expect a new generation to do that without access to education – we're setting them up to fail.”

Since the last US troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August this year, Save the Children has reached more than 40,000 adults and children with health, nutrition and education programmes in seven of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

The charity resumed work in Kandahar, Kabul, Jowzjan, Balkh, Laghman, Nangarhar and Kunar in September, after earlier operating in these provinces and three more.

“We are looking at the best way to ensure critical, life-saving humanitarian aid continues to reach Afghans who need it," a UK government spokesman said.

“We have been clear with the Taliban and with our partners that we expect women and girls of all ages to be able to access quality education, and that their rights need to be protected.”

Updated: October 15, 2021, 12:08 AM