One of the Taliban’s first acts after taking power in Afghanistan a month ago was to force most working women out of their jobs and return home. This adds to the risk of famine the country faces after years of poor harvests, including this year’s wheat crop. In an economy dependent on aid and in great difficulty, the withdrawal of tens of thousands of workers only increases the number of people facing hunger in a country where 47.3% live below the poverty line. What is happening outside could be even worse. Women represent almost a third of the rural workforce. Without them, the problems of a country barely able to feed itself will only get worse.
The main fear of Afghan women is that they will not be able to work, and the loss of access to education comes next, says Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. With so many men killed in the conflict or fleeing the country, a significant number of women have remained both single parents and sole breadwinners to support their parents and other family members. “The Taliban preventing women from working is not about their sense of empowerment – although this is important – but about the loss of any ability to feed themselves and their families,” Barr notes.
According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network research group, the price of essential items, from flour to cooking oil, has risen as the Afghan currency depreciates. In a second-hand market in Kabul, desperate families sell household items to buy food. Even before this year’s crisis, Afghanistan was plagued by hunger due to a devastating drought in 2018 and 2019. Only North Korea and six countries in sub-Saharan Africa were getting by on fewer daily calories, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. .
The Taliban’s takeover will exacerbate all of these problems, as poverty, undernourishment and gender inequality go hand in hand. Although women and girls tend to be more resilient to malnutrition, in patriarchal societies they also suffer the worst deprivation and long-term side effects as more food is allocated to men in the household.
Living on the verge of hunger can be both a cause and an effect of the reduced status of women. Economic empowerment usually begins with control of at least part of the household finances. Even in patriarchal societies, there is evidence that letting go of men’s hold on money can lead to a virtuous cycle of increasing equality, income, and well-being. The effects can be significant: Malnutrition in children decreases by around 43% when women control any increase in income, and the improvement is greater if they have better access to education. For this advancement to occur, however, there must first be excess income. With the Taliban suppressing women’s ability to earn money and soaring food prices, the chances of that happening are low. According to a 2014 study, around 53% of rural Afghan household spending is on food alone and is unlikely to improve. Since most of the expenditure is on raw materials, it is also much more exposed to fluctuations in market prices.
Thanks to the effects of the drought and the pandemic, wheat flour prices in Kabul were about 20% above historical averages for most of the year. It is likely to get worse: If you think supply chain problems in rich countries lead to shortages and inflation, it is nothing compared to the kind of civil chaos and uncertainty that has befallen on Afghanistan.
Add to that a banking sector in crisis, with long queues for what little money is left in the country. The United States and international agencies, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have frozen foreign exchange reserves and halted their regular money transfers. A United Nations conference in Geneva last week pledged more than $ 1 billion in emergency aid. But the question for donors is how to provide assistance quickly, before winter, without inadvertently funding the Taliban’s brutal crackdown on women, the media, religious minorities and other key elements of civil society.
Behind the scenes, there is a nasty disagreement between aid organizations, including the United Nations, Barr notes. Some agencies say that if the Taliban does not allow female rescuers, they should go on and provide the aid regardless, given the need is so great. Others say having women workers is the only way to ensure that aid reaches women – a claim that has been proven time and time again.
Whatever happens, it has to happen quickly. Up to 97% of the population could sink below the poverty line by the middle of next year without an urgent response to the dual political and economic crisis, the United Nations Development Program warned this week. last. Hunger could prove as devastating for Afghan women as the Taliban themselves.
Ruth Pollard and David Fickling are columnists for Bloomberg Opinion.
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