‘We are worse off’: Afghanistan further impoverished as women vanish from workforce

One morning last summer, Nasira* arrived for work at the government building in Kabul where she was employed in a managerial position to find men from the Taliban had occupied her office. “I wasn’t allowed to enter,” the 32-year-old says. “When I enquired why, I was told to wait for a government announcement, which never came.”

This was shortly after the Taliban swept to power and seized Kabul, the capital city, on 15 August 2021. That was the last day that Nasira and thousands of women like her were able to go to work. Though the Taliban’s acting prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, claimed that women would be allowed to continue working under sharia law, female government employees in Kabul were told to stay at home, and only women whose jobs cannot be done by men were allowed to work.

Nasira is technically still employed and receives a significantly reduced salary. “They tell me, ‘we are paying you, what else do you need?’ But money is not my priority,” she says. “I was responsible for our department’s services to women citizens. I want to serve my people, especially the women of my country, who are not receiving services they need because there are no women officials to help them.”

It is not only government positions that women have been forced out of. According to Reporters Without Borders, only 100 of Kabul’s 700 female journalists were still working by the end of 2021. In 2019, 36% of teachers in the country were women, according World Bank data, the highest number for 20 years, but the Taliban’s ban in March on education for girls forced many female educators out of work.

Sima Bahous, the UN Women executive director, said this month: “Current restrictions on women’s employment have been estimated to result in an immediate economic loss of up to $1bn – or up to 5% of Afghanistan’s GDP.” She added: “There is almost universal poverty in the country.”

The Afghan academic and former minister of mines, Nargis Nehan, says: “It is hard to collect data under the Taliban, and access to information is limited, but under the previous government 27% of the civil servants and almost 40% of the teachers were women. But only a handful of women are allowed to work these days.”

The loss of women from the workforce will cost the Afghan economy an estimated $1b.
In 2019 the number of female teachers was the highest for 20 years – a ban on girls’ education has forced many out of work. Composite: Guardian Design/AFP/Getty Images

The latest in the series of decrees issued by the recently reinstated ministry for the propagation of virtue requires “all respectable Afghan women to wear a hijab” – and identifying the chador (the blue Afghan burqa) as the “best hijab” of choice – will have a significant impact on the remaining women in public roles. The order also went on to criminalise women’s clothes and said female government employees who violated the dress code would be fired.

“As per the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce, we had over 3,500 small and medium business owners who were women, the majority of whom are now closed because they couldn’t survive,” Nehan says. “Because how do you expect women to work or run a business under a chador or facing fear of punishment for showing their face?”

A gynaecologist from Herat, who wishes to be identified only as Dr Maryam, says: “Even before this decree, they made hijab mandatory for women doctors, and require female surgeons to wear long sleeves, and a long scarf, even during surgery. It affects the way they work and is not safe.” Armed Taliban officials often force themselves into the hospital, she adds, especially during night shifts, to “monitor the work” of the female doctors and nurses. “They had also briefly insisted on women doctors having their mahram [male guardian] with them at all times, which is not practical especially on a women’s ward.”

There are no figures for the number of women who have left healthcare roles, but according to an article from the BMJ, women make up nearly half of Afghanistan’s community health worker programme.

Taliban restrictions are driving women out of healthcare roles.
Taliban restrictions are driving women out of healthcare roles. Composite: Guardian Design/AP

One hospital in Kabul reported that segregation of men and women, for staff as well as patients, had been requested already,” the BMJ said. “Women are especially restricted in their freedom of movement and often require male guardians to merely leave their homes. Even midwives have to be accompanied when doing home visits. Due to lack of information, some are stuck at home entirely, waiting for new directions.”

“Although these restrictions are not new – I recall working under the Taliban regime the last time they were in power and had imposed similar restrictions – they are new to this generation, and will discourage younger women from joining professions under the Taliban’s hateful gaze,” Maryam says. “Do we really want to go back to those days? How will it benefit Afghanistan?”

The Taliban takeover prompted many Afghan female doctors, especially those who worked in reproductive and sexual health, to flee the country. Those who remained are now facing threats from local Taliban leaders for not complying with their rules, Maryam says.

Afghan women have made significant inroads into various sectors over the past 20 years, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. According to World Bank data, women comprised nearly 22% of the Afghan workforce and numbers were steadily growing.

But a report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) in January found that Afghan women’s employment levels fell by an estimated 16% in the third quarter of 2021, compared with 6% for men. Women’s employment was expected to be 21% lower than before the Taliban takeover by mid-2022 if current conditions continued, according to the ILO, though this does not take into account employees such as Nasira who are still paid without being allowed to work.

Restricting women from participating in economic and public activities will have a dire impact on the economy, a UN report warned last December. It could, for example, shave half a billion dollars from household consumption alone.

Nasira’s supervisor, who wished be identified only as Abdul, confirms that services have been affected since female colleagues were sent home. “I had seven women in my team and, since the Taliban takeover, none of them has been allowed back to work. They were the backbone of the department, and to be honest, they were more hardworking than the men,” he says.

“Not only has our workload increased, we are unable to provide adequate technical services to Afghan women, who were way more comfortable approaching our female staff with their problems. We are worse off without our female colleagues.”

* Some names have been changed.

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