Afghanistan: More challenges for women and girls due to COVID-19

Interview with Rabia Sabri, Programme Coordinator, CWSA Afghanistan

Being a woman or a girl in a patriarchal society like Afghanistan has never been easy. In times of COVID, they face even more challenges. However, the main concern of most women is not the virus, but mere survival. What they need most is financial support for their families.

The number of COVID-cases in Afghanistan is relatively low – a fact which like in many countries says more about the number of tests carried out than about the real number of infected persons. The economic effect which shakes the country however is enormous. Therefore, the highest need at the moment is not related to the virus, but to the question of how to feed the family in times of lockdown – especially among the most vulnerable. Rabia Sabri from ACT Alliance-member Community World Service Asia (CWSA) is Programme Coordinator for CWSA’s education projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan describes her current work and the challenges the organization faces in this situation.

Concern over schooling for girls

Overall, Rabia estimates that the COVID-19 impact has doubled or tripled women’s responsibilities. She says: “My worry is that COVID-19 will slow down the access of girls to education in Afghanistan. There are 9 million school children in Afghanistan, and another 3.7 million children are out of school, meaning that they are not going to school due to economic and cultural issues. 60% of these out of school children are girls.”

Rabia also fears that because of the economic impact of COVID-19, families will further prioritise educating boys rather than girls, while the number of out of school children is feared to increase– especially the number of girls. “It is important to continue to support these families financially and convince them to invest in education, especially for girls, which directly impacts their wellbeing,” states Rabia.

Weak education system

The situation is also difficult for children still attending school. There were no plans for tuition after the lockdown. Poor education infrastructure and a lack of resources and manpower have been the main cause of delay. Afghanistan has a poor economy and mainly relies on financial aid. Only 3% of the GDP is allocated to education, and not even those budgets are fully consumed every year. With World Bank funding, the ministry now has introduced alternative distance learning opportunities for students. Rabia says, “CWSA in the past 10 years has invested a lot in girls’ education. But still in Afghanistan people believe that a girl’s place is either at home or in the grave.”

 Device-based learning creates new divisions

Do TV- or e-learning-programs work as distance learning opportunities in Afghanistan? “Online learning is better than nothing, but it has created a digital divide. People who have access to these devices can benefit, but the majority of the students in rural areas do not have access to computers or TVs. For cases where they have a computer or TV but there is no electricity, we are in communication with the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan for introducing different learning pathways for students who do not have access to TV or to the digital world,” explains Rabia.

A country of widows

Afghanistan is a country of widows and therefore has millions of women-led households. It is extremely difficult for them to face the shock of this disaster. Widowed women are already vulnerable as their literacy rate is only at 17%; the overall literacy rate is as low as 31%. This means that the majority of these women has less access to formal jobs and are more dependent on small earnings – mainly livestock management, as this is the only asset they own. With this disaster it has been reported that widows have been selling the poultry which was the only source of income for them during the past weeks of lockdown. Widows also rely on support from their families and communities, but with the current impact of COVID-19, that assistance has also been reduced. Rabia reports that due to a lack of mobility widows do not get proper information on the availability of aid, so “most of the time they are left out unless special programs are designed for them,” she states.

Small signs of change

Everywhere in Afghanistan the life of women is slowly changing and you can see more women and girls as leaders, contributing to the development of Afghanistan in different aspects. But this occurs still very rarely and is restricted to big cities. Women in rural areas still face discrimination, their mobility is limited, they have no decision-making power and face domestic violence and forced marriages. The main source of these problems is girls’ lack of access to education. This fact increases their dependence on men and reduces their decision-making power and empowerment. Rural women generally do not have direct access to information, they follow what the male tells them, and they certainly they do not have the same information and protection as men have.

Increase of domestic violence and child marriage

Violence against women is a major issue in Afghanistan and in the current situation has become worse. Pressure on men is increasing as they have lost their jobs and are lacking a proper family income, and this in turn leads to disputes and fights in the families. It is unfortunately also common in Afghanistan that during financial crises families marry their girls at young age against dowry. In this emergency, those numbers have been reportedly increased as well.