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Women must not be erased from public life in Afghanistan

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  • Following the decision by the Taliban to ban women from working for NGOs, MSF condemns the step and the gradual erasure of women and girls from public life in Afghanistan
  • Restricting the participation of women in the Afghan workforce is detrimental to all, including potential long-term impacts that could limit women’s access to healthcare
  • While MSF is not impacted by the decision, and we maintain our full complement of staff, we urge that women are not excluded from providing essential services.

Kabul - After months of continuous restrictions placed on the women and girls of Afghanistan, including limitations placed on their participation in everyday life, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) strongly condemns the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s erasure of women from social life in the country. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – also known as the Taliban – have limited women and girls’ access to education and, most recently, even the right for women to work for non-governmental organisations.

“More than 51 per cent of our medical staff are women,” says Filipe Ribeiro, MSF Country Representative in Afghanistan, on the most recent ban. “We are talking about nearly 900 doctors, nurses and other professionals who strive every day to give thousands of Afghans the best care possible.”

“MSF operations couldn’t exist without them,” continues Ribeiro. “This newest directive is just another step in a systematic attempt to expunge women’s presence from the public domain, to everyone’s detriment.”

If women are prevented from working in health facilities, and if women can only be treated by women, then it will be virtually impossible for them to access healthcare. Filipe Ribeiro, MSF Country Representative in Afghanistan

In a country with a population which is confronted with rampant poverty, fuelled by skyrocketing unemployment, and is mostly dependent on humanitarian aid for survival, female workers play a critical role in providing humanitarian assistance and healthcare services. No organisation, however big or small, can deliver assistance to communities in need without women’s participation.  

The consequences of this latest decree will hit vulnerable groups the hardest, such as female patients and children, for whom it will become even more difficult, if not impossible, to see doctors. For the time being, all of our activities have been maintained, as our female colleagues continue to work unhindered in the health facilities managed by MSF and the Ministry of Health. This must not change; prohibiting women from working would effectively prevent them from accessing healthcare.

“Over 90 per cent of our medical staff in Khost maternity hospital are women,” says Ribeiro. “They assist with the delivery of 1,800 babies every month. If this policy is fully implemented, more mothers will face additional, perhaps insurmountable, barriers to prenatal and postnatal services. They’ll have nowhere to go.”     

After the closure of secondary schools in March 2022, the Ministry of Higher Education also announced the decision to bar women from attending private and public universities earlier this month. This will undoubtedly worsen the situation in the long-term.

Kandahar Ambulatory Therapeutic Feeding Centre 02

“The healthcare system in Afghanistan struggles to meet people’s basic needs,” says Ribeiro. “If patients can’t get treatment today, what will happen in the future when half of all potential medical students are not allowed to study?”

“In Khost, we already find it challenging to fill all necessary positions, including for gynaecologists, who are extremely scarce across the region,” Ribeiro continues. “We need more female doctors, not fewer.”     

Excluding women in this way goes against every principle of humanity and medical ethics to which health professionals subscribe.

“If women are prevented from working in health facilities, and if women can only be treated by women, then it will be virtually impossible for them to access healthcare,” says Ribeiro. “As a result, no healthcare provider, including MSF, will be able to deliver medical services in Afghanistan.”

In order for essential services to be available for all genders, they must be delivered by all genders. For that reason, MSF in Afghanistan remains committed to serve all those in need of medical care, by maintaining our current teams as they are.

MSF runs seven projects in Helmand, Kunduz, Herat, Khost, Kabul, Kandahar and Bamiyan with a particular focus on delivering specialist healthcare. More than 1,700 medical professionals work for MSF in Afghanistan, 894 of whom are female, 835 are male. In 2022, MSF teams were responsible for over 250,000 outpatient consultations, 42,000 inpatient admissions, 71,000 emergency room admissions, 11,000 surgical interventions, 35,000 deliveries. There were 5,000 children enrolled at the ambulatory therapeutic feeding centres, 7,000 children admitted to the inpatient therapeutic feeding centres, 9,500 measles patients treated, 22,000 consultations for TB, 2,000 TB patients started on treatment and 80 drug-resistant TB patients enrolled on treatment.   

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Press Release 6 February 2023