The Taliban’s ban on Afghan women attending university is eroding hopes for the futureBMJ 2023; 380 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p653 (Published 21 March 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:p653
An image of a lone 18 year old Afghan woman in Kabul rising up to protest against the Taliban’s ban on Afghan women attending university, revealed a bravery and strength.1
On 20 December 2022, the Taliban issued a statement that all Afghan women are banned from attending university. The ban turned to reality the fear of what might happen when the Taliban government took power in August 2021. Immediately, women’s and girl’s dreams ceased.2 The lives of Afghan women were already precariously balanced from living in a country fragmented by conflict. The lives of Afghan women have been drawn into a battle of liberty, imperialism, and extremism. The right to education existed as a landmark on the horizon to freedom of thought and speech, and offered the possibility to carve out individual identities and voices.
Now women’s and girl’s hopes of a better future have been eroded. All aspects of the future for Afghanistan are now in disarray. Women have been erased from education and will fall in the adage of “kor yar ghor”—home or grave—the two prominent places where a woman is permitted to occupy space.
We can expect that the home will be the site of increased domestic and intimate partner violence. We can expect that the grave will be the site for women dying from preventable diseases and during childbirth. Approximately a third of health professionals say that infant, child, and maternal mortality have increased since the Taliban takeover.3 Rubenstein et al (2023) include reference to a report of two surveys involving 131 healthcare providers in Afghanistan.3 The respondents reported that health workers are experiencing targeted violence and that reaching women in labour is increasingly difficult in circumstances where women health workers require a Mahram (male guardian) to accompany them. They risk harassment and violence when trying to reach health facilities. These findings indicate resistance and challenge to the strict imposition of Taliban rulings. By denying women access to education, the Taliban government is inflicting a further form of conflict on women, in addition to the armed conflict that the Taliban have waged for over two decades since the previous Taliban rule.
Resources to prevent violence against women and girls are depleting rapidly in light of a ban on Afghan women working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Before August 2021, NGOs delivered more than a third of the country’s healthcare. Even during the reign of President Ashraf Ghani, from 2014 to 2021, there were no women refuge centres due to strict socio-cultural taboos and because these safe houses have been “highly politicised for protecting women who, in leaving their violent husbands, have committed what many Afghans consider to be ‘moral crimes’”4 NGOs provided the only recourse for women to access safety away from violence and to receive legal and psychological support. The 30-40 safe houses that were supported by NGOs are now closed and the fate of the women who were forced to flee back to their abusive families, or to live a life of destitution in informal settlement camps, is unknown.
Fundamentally, the Taliban’s ban on women attending university is an additional trauma on top of everything that has happened over the last four decades of conflict. The impact of banning women from university is so severe that there is a collective harm incurred to all Afghan women’s wellbeing. The humanitarian crises throughout the country are intensifying. There is an endless reign of terror as the Taliban continue to maintain a stronghold in controlling all Afghan lives. The dreams of every Afghan woman are now obliterated.
Competing interests: none declared.
Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.