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“We have to protect ourselves.” defending women’s rights in Afghanistan under lockdown

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Lockdown measures in Afghanistan are yet another blow in the face of millions of Afghan women, depriving them of the basic human rights and liberties they have fought for successfully in the past decades. This is why colleagues in Kabul and the Hague are doing what they can to integrate an (S)GBV approach in all COVID-19 responses in the country.

"To fight COVID-19, governments and aid agencies have prioritized healthcare and humanitarian responses. This is a worldwide phenomenon, and it's understandable", says Gender Expert Anne Kwakkenbos. "But the pandemic response has evolved over several months now, and what we see, is what we often see during crises: when tensions and stress levels rise acutely, violence against women and domestic violence rise accordingly. This is particularly the case when confinement is part of the response, and particularly in Afghanistan, where many women have been confined against their will for ages", she continues. "So, instead of only focusing on health and relief, you need to look at societies holistically, in order to address mechanisms of violence and exclusion", she continues.


One of the Afghan colleagues with whom Kwakkenbos, based in The Hague, worked out a COVID-19 sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) approach, is Nasima Omari, Lobby and Advocacy expert based in Kabul and staunch women's rights defender. "There is no doubt that the pandemic and the lockdown measures mean yet another setback for women", Omari says. "Afghan women have no equal access to self-quarantine or self-isolation facilities. For women who are abused, or violated, access to safe houses and shelters has greatly diminished. Overall, a recent UN Women survey shows that Afghan women fear a further loss of their basic rights", she points out.

Like everywhere else, social and economic life in Afghanistan has been disrupted by the pandemic. But unlike many other countries, this disruption exacerbates the inequalities and hardships that come with decades of protracted conflict. “War disturbed normal life in Afghanistan during the past four decades”, says Hameed Attaiy, Cordaid’s Programme Director in Kabul. “All political, social, and economic norms have been distorted because of the war. People’s daily lives are painfully restrained, not only by war and insecurity but also by the lack of education, especially for girls, the lack of financial resources, and lack of job opportunities. And by a government that has no strategy in place to fight the root causes. Now, with COVID-19, these restraints have only increased”, Attaiy continues. “70% of the Afghan population depends on their daily income for survival. Being confined and without income, stress levels among households – which have seven members on average – soar up.”


Basically, this boils down to a number of manifestations of sexual and gender-based violence. “(S)GBV comprises far more than physical and psychological violence and harassment”, says Kwakkenbos. “It is also the structural denial of rights and access to opportunities and services”, she explains. “This is what you see around the globe. Now that kids are confined, parents buy more tablets and other education or entertainment for them. But who is the first to get it if you can only buy one? Most often, that would be boys. When I talk to heads of households, that’s what I hear. Also in Afghanistan.”

“In Afghanistan, especially in the rural areas where the majority lives, women, even when they are affected by ill health or have COVID-19, are forced to do house chores, and take care of all family members and her children”, says Omari. “And if she singly heads a household, or is displaced, or both – which is often the case in a war-affected country – and has no income because of the pandemic, the task is simply overwhelming. Denying them and their daughters their equal rights, to work, income, education, and healthcare is a brutal violation.”

(S)GBV is a plight in Afghanistan. In the bigger cities the situation has improved over the years, but not in the villages. “There is a direct correlation between levels of education and violence against women. In rural, impoverished areas, there’s more domestic violence and more gender-based violence”, specifies Attaiy. “Often”, Omari adds, “this violence is the result of misinterpretations of Sharia laws.”


On a more macro-level, the political dynamics and the faltering peace process, have all been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well. “Most of all, with public life coming to a standstill, there are more questions than ever”, says Kwakkenbos.

“There was Ramadan, there was a ceasefire and then there was corona. There is a lot of buzz about the start of the peace process, but nobody knows what the next steps will be. Will it continue online? Is this possible? Will the government really start to facilitate the much-

needed inter-Afghan dialogues for peace – with women at the tables? What are the next moves of the heavyweights in the international community? We don’t know.”

“What we do know”, Kwakkenbos comments, “is that (S)GBV remains a blind spot, a taboo inside Afghanistan. This isn’t any different during the COVID-19 crisis. Even internationally, it is certainly not a priority. Throughout the months of confinement, we continued to highlight that blind spot and to address the taboo.”


“We are now integrating (S)GBV awareness and responses in the work of the COVID-19 outreach teams of Cordaid and our Afghan partners in several Afghan provinces, notably Kabul and Herat. We do this in close collaboration with the Provincial Women’s Network. Those teams whose main focus is to reduce the spread of the virus, are now in the process of taking stock of and addressing SGBV risks and realities”, Kwakkenbos continues.

“Women’s rights and human rights are cross-cutting issues”, adds Attaiy. “Over the years Cordaid has implemented programmes and projects to reduce domestic violence throughout the country. We worked, and we continue to work at grassroots level, by empowering women, supporting them financially, and supporting them in their struggle to have a say and to shape, not only their own lives but also that of their communities and of the country. And we continue to support Afghan women in their rightful claim to be at the table of the peace talks with the Taliban and other intra-Afghan dialogues. All this is even more needed in times of COVID-19.”

So far, reliable data not only of the virus but also of the impact of the lockdown measures, are lacking. “That’s why we are also planning a rapid assessment of the impact of the pandemic on domestic violence”, Attaiy adds. “Assessments like these will help to grasp the COVID-19 and (S)GBV correlation.”

"Meanwhile, we need to act", urges Kwakkenbos. "We have enough anecdotal evidence that (S)GBV levels have risen due to lockdown measures, not only in Afghanistan but also in other conflict-affected countries where we work, like Iraq."


Kwakkenbos, who has a long track record in gender equality activism and feminism and who used to defend her cause by traveling between The Hague, New York, Kabul, Juba and other places in pre-corona days, warns that more is needed to help societies in Afghanistan and elsewhere, deal with the (S)GBV surge related to COVID-19 measures. Financially but also in terms of political commitment. “The long-term impact of girls not being able to go to school, of women being denied liberties and forced to stay inside, of the wounds of gender-based violence, cannot be overestimated”, she claims. “Yet, time and again we see that (S)GBV in crisis settings is not ranking very high on the international and national agendas. It is overshadowed by the focus on short-term solutions. Addressing and changing this is part and parcel – and a very frustrating and tiresome part – of being a feminist”, she concludes.


Meanwhile, in Kabul, Attaiy and Omari continue to work under the extreme conditions of confinement and war. Being a women’s rights defenders in this context is a challenge in itself, claims Attaiy. “But for me, an Afghan man”, he says, “equality between women and men is part of my belief and of who I am. In fact, Islam teaches me that one gender can never be superior to another. I am a Muslim human rights defender. Defending women’s rights is a natural part of that, however strong the social, cultural, and political adversity”, he proudly concludes.

Omari readily admits the struggle weighs hard on her. “It’s not easy, being a young woman in Afghanistan and defending your rights and those of your sisters. Being young means you must keep quiet and pay respect. Being a young woman means that even when you are silent, your rights are denied and violated. Basic campaigning activities, like speaking out in front of men and elders, are not allowed. We break these norms constantly, but it takes everything we have. And more than that sometimes. Extremists throw their filth at us on social media. We need to prove ourselves so much more than men. To protect ourselves we devise all kinds of strategies. Then there’s the financial stress. Any financial setback puts young people with their backs against the wall. Yet, we continue. Every step forward is a joyful victory.”