By Drew Dakessian
In the last several weeks, Afghanistan has dominated headlines due to the evacuation of U.S. troops from the country and the simultaneous return of the Taliban. But Afghanistan is noteworthy for another reason: having one of the largest populations of disabled people in the world. At least one in five Afghan households has one or more adults or children with a “severe” intellectual, physical, psychosocial, or sensory disability, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
For Afghan women and girls, living at the intersection of misogyny and ableism has meant that they are often denied healthcare, education, and employment, along with other basic civil rights. They also frequently experience sexual harassment.
In 2020, HRW released a 31-page report based on interviews with 23 disabled women and girls, three family members of disabled women and girls, and 14 health and educational professionals living in the Afghan cities of Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif. The report detailed multiple instances of abuse, neglect, and prejudice experienced by Afghan women and girls with a range of disabilities.
An estimated 90 percent of disabled people in Afghanistan are unemployed as a result of entrenched social biases. Amina Azizi, the head of a small advocacy organization working on behalf of women with disabilities in Afghanistan lost her right leg in a rocket attack as a child. When she first attempted to find a job, she was asked, “Why are you seeking work when those who are without disabilities are jobless?”
“Unfortunately, the percentage employing people with disabilities, especially women, is very low. Although men with disabilities face similar problems, in general it is much more difficult for women with disabilities,” an Afghan government official told HRW, “Because in a male-dominated society, employment of women is less common,” due to gender bias.
Sexual harassment and social stigma
According to the report, sexual harassment against women with disabilities, particularly in government offices, is a widespread problem throughout Afghanistan. A 2016 study found 90 percent of the 346 women and girls interviewed in Afghanistan said they had experienced sexual harassment in public places, 91 percent of them said they were harassed in educational environments, and 87 percent were harassed in workplaces.
When one woman interviewed by HRW went to the State Ministry for Martyrs and Disabled Affairs to obtain a disability certificate, the administrative employee who was working there asked her “to sleep with him for a night” in front of his colleagues.
When she refused, she said they responded by saying: “How do you want to get your disability card when you don’t want to sleep with us?”
Social stigmas are also pervasive among disabled Afghan women and girls. Women of marriageable age are deemed “unfit” for marriage if disabled. A disabled girl or woman of any age often is considered to be a source of shame and a burden for her family in general. According to the report, “Young girls with disabilities are ashamed of going out, and their families exacerbate this situation.”
Women and girls with disabilities are also often harassed and treated as pariahs when entering into public spaces and are therefore forced to stay in their homes.
Being restricted to the home poses an inherent threat to a disabled girl’s education. A mere 20 percent of Afghan girls with disabilities were enrolled in schools last year. This is largely an effect of inaccessible school facilities and/or reluctance from faculty and staff to accommodate disabled students’ needs.
One such student, who uses a wheelchair, said, “Unfortunately, I cannot go to school by myself — I need someone to take me … and pick me up. The school has no ramp, so it’s hard … to get in and out of the classroom, and sometimes even that’s impossible.”
Another potential reason for the low school enrollment of disabled Afghan girls in school is the nation’s insufficient transit infrastructure. Transportation also has a bearing on health care. If disabled women and girls with mobility-based disabilities have no means of transport — especially those who reside in the rural provinces of Afghanistan — they would have to travel great distances to Kabul and other cities for specialized medical treatment.
The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to have a profound impact on disabled women and girls worldwide, imposing barriers to sexual and reproductive health and rights, disability-related health care, and COVID-19 testing and treatment; reducing access to employment and education; and diminishing disability-related support overall. Domestic violence against disabled women has been a major global problem, as well, according to the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service. On top of these issues, disabled Afghan women also have been forced to contend with their own COVID-related challenges, including limited access to factual information about the pandemic.
Meanwhile, “amputated limbs, visual or hearing disabilities, and psychosocial disabilities such as depression and post-traumatic stress” are the result of over 40 years of war in Afghanistan, HRW reported.
The safety of disabled Afghan women and girls must be prioritized
In previous times of armed conflict, disabled people faced violent attacks, forced displacement, and humanitarian neglect. As seen globally, the effects of war on women — especially disabled women — are often dire. And indeed, the Taliban’s recent reseizure of power in Afghanistan will jeopardize disabled women and girls further.
For one thing, the few disabled girls who have in the past had the opportunity to attend school are now liable to have that option revoked, the upshot of a unilateral removal of educational access. Moreover, for women who do not leave their homes as a result of disability-related barriers, it may no longer be possible to depend on other women to provide them with medicine, food, and other necessities, since these women may cease to feel safe going out in public or may be forbidden to do so. In addition, there’s a chance that the Taliban will close national borders, thereby cutting off essential services and supplies previously provided by nongovernmental organizations. Thus, with the current situation in Afghanistan, all Afghan women and girls are at an increased risk of disempowerment, especially those who have disabilities.
As the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states, we must recognize that women and girls with disabilities are subjected to multiple discrimination, and “in this regard we shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedom.”
Even if these civil rights violations applied either to women or disabled people, they would be utterly devastating. Taken together, they amount to an egregious assault on the human rights of much of the Afghan population — with ramifications for the entire disabled Afghan population because they make up such a large segment. Keep in mind that this domino effect isn’t unique to Afghanistan. It occurs anywhere that both disabled people and women are marginalized. And its economic and moral impact can be felt worldwide.
HRW concluded its 2020 report with suggestions for the government of Afghanistan and its international partners. None of the recommendations to the former such as “Include human rights, including the rights of persons with disabilities, in all bilateral and multilateral discussions with Afghanistan” — are now relevant because the Afghan government has since been dismantled.
However, it may still be possible to rectify the damage already done to disabled Afghan women and prevent additional degradation moving forward. It is paramount that the international partners of the former Afghan government “ensure that funding for civil society and economic and social development include benchmarks and reporting regarding progress in ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities,” as HRW suggests.
In other words, the Afghanistan government must be held accountable for the abuse and discrimination against Afghan disabled women, with a clear plan for restoring the protection of their rights and safety moving forward.
Drew Dakessian is a Freelance Writer for WID.