Too shocking to describe: the fate of Afghan women

Afghanistan has seen over two decades of war. It is now run by men who have raised their own sexual psychoses to the level of a political and religious philosophy. Women have been denied basic health care, education, the freedom even to leave their own houses; they are subjected to systematic violence and bought and sold as property. Orzala Ashraf is Director of the organisation Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan. Recently, at the invitation of Luisa Morgnatini MEP, of the United Left Group, and the peace group Women in Black, she addressed a meeting of Members and staff at the European Parliament. The following is an extract from her talk.

In 1979 the Russians occupied our country and our people rose against them. In addition to the fundamentalist groups, there were also nationalists, democrats, leftists and tribal fronts involved in the war of resistance. However, the fundamentalists were armed and generously financed by the West and its allies in the region, while other groups had to fight with limited means. During ten years of war, around two million Afghans were killed, more than a million disabled and five million left the country, a wave of refugees which still continues.

In 1989, the Russians left our country but the civil war continued. In 1992, the pro-Soviet puppet regime was replaced by Islamic fundamentalists and the war intensified. The Taliban, students of religious schools in Pakistan, first came on the scene two years later. By 1996 they had taken over Kabul and now control more than 90% of the country.

The results of these wars are so painful and shocking that they are too difficult to describe. They have fully or partially destroyed the human, social and cultural environment, houses, villages and cities, forests and educational institutions. Bombardments and mines have polluted our soil and water. More than 10 million land mines remain uncleared, killing an average of over 300,000 children each year. 17% of the population is disabled.

As a result of the Taliban’s actions, the number of women begging is on the increase in Kabul, and depression amongst women is rife. There are reports of trafficking in women, forced marriages and prostitution. UN Rapporteur Comarasawmy says that she has never seen the people suffer as much as in Afghanistan: ‘The situation looks very bleak in terms of poverty, in terms of war, in terms of the rights of women,’ she wrote.

Over 40% of the victims of today’s civil war in Afghanistan are children and young people. Even those who have escaped direct harm have witnessed acts of violence. The psychological scars are deep. A UNICEF study in October 1997 found that 90% of children in Kabul have believed that they would die at some point in the conflict. According to a UN High Commission survey of just ten of Kabul’s sixteen residential districts, 28,000 children are supporting their families, mostly through begging.

The ignorant ruling factions regard education for women and girls as an anti-religious act. UNICEF reports that in 1999 there were no educational facilities at all in 90% of Afghanistan’s territory, while male adult literacy stands at 15%, female at 5%.

The situation is equally bleak in relation to public health, with no access to clean water or health care for the vast majority. Many preventable or curable diseases, even those which in normal circumstances are the least life threatening, have caused many deaths in Afghanistan. Every day someone dies of a disease that can be cured with very little medical care.

Women in particular are suffering, as they are severely discriminated against when it comes to what little health care is available. The Taliban have made it almost impossible for any woman to receive sufficient medical attention, or, in many cases, any medical attention whatsoever. Male medical practitioners are not allowed to visit female patients, while female medical professionals are forbidden from working outside their houses.

Regretfully the international community and the UN are unable to find a solution for the crisis. Their efforts have been concentrated on uniting warring factions in order to impose them on our people as a single power, although all of these factions are in fact as bad as each other. Recent UN sanctions on the Taliban will not stop the war between the various criminals. Only the poor and helpless people are affected.

A solution will only become possible when, first of all, foreign interference in the crisis is cut off and neighbouring countries cease to take actions which make matters worse. The United nations, on the other hand, should not limit itself to talking to the warring factions but should involve democratic-minded national groups and personalities.

Orzala Ashraf