The everyday barriers faced by women with disabilities in Afghanistan

Afghan women with disabilities protest for their rights Afghan women with disabilities protest for their rights © Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

This article is a brief presentation of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the discrimination faced by women with disabilities in Afghanistan

In its April report “Disability in not weakness”, HRW  focuses  on the everyday barriers Afghan women and girls with disability face in a country with one of the largest populations of persons with disabilities per capita. 

The report, covering the period April 2018 to January 2020, is based on 23 interviews conducted in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat with women with disabilities and three interviews with family members of such women. Furthermore, interviews with 14 healthcare and education professionals,  representatives from the United Nations, and international and local NGOs providing services to persons with disabilities are included. According to HRW, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and the insecurity in rural areas and in small towns led to severe difficulties for the reporters conducting the interviews. Moreover, “the stigma associated with disabilities also deters many women with disabilities from speaking about their situation” and  HRW has thus anonymised personal data.

As a result of the more than 40 years of war, more than 1 million Afghans are disabled, with disabilities ranging from amputated limbs and other mobility impairments, visual or hearing disabilities, to psychological distress and cerebral palsy.  While related to the conflict, such as landmines and explosive remnants of war, many Afghans have pre-existing disabilities not directly caused by the  conflicts, such as disabilities caused by polio. Overall, at least one in five Afghan families have one member with physical, psychosocial or intellectual disability. The endemic poverty, violence and widespread lawlessness undermined the government’s efforts to adopt -or enforce- policies addressing the most fundamental needs of persons with disabilities. Despite the government’s recent adoption of the Law on rights and privileges of persons with disability, which provides for the development of rehabilitative education programs for persons with disabilities, and the ratification, in 2012,  of  the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, the envisaged aims were never accomplished. 

The report stresses the barriers women and girls with disability face when accessing education, employment and health care. In the Afghan society, violence against women and gender discrimination are endemic. Consequently, Afghan women with disabilities face intersecting forms of discrimination: a stigma associated with their disability and a gender bias. So, girls with disabilities are often seen as a burden on their families and they often lose out entirely on education due to the fact that public schools are not equipped to accommodate their needs and no dedicated transportation is available for girls with physical disabilities. As very few families can afford private schools, only a small number of girls with disabilities are able to regularly attend schools. Such is then owed to local NGOs working with school officials to allow girls with disabilities to attend classes and participate in activities in accordance with  the law on rights and privileges of persons with disabilities. HRW further refers to the lack of a system to identify, assess and meet the needs of children with disabilities and even those who are able to attend schools generally receive no specific assistance. Even though the Afghan government’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, children with disabilities are excluded from the education system which constitutes a violation of the Convention’s aim to ensure full access to education at all levels and without discrimination. The Convention further enshrines the national authorities obligation to guarantee equality of children with disabilities in the education system and includes ensuring students’ physical access to the educational facilities and that teachers are trained in inclusive education methods. Based on the report, to date  the Afghan government failed to provide inclusive education and an estimated 80% of girls with disabilities are not enrolled in schools. HRW learned from a government education official that one of the main reasons for  children with disabilities not attending schools was the reluctance of schools to accommodate such children "because they need to be taken care of”. Moreover, the “stigma is an additional problem for girls with disabilities, and their families do not allow them to go to school because they are ashamed of them”.

Women and girls also face barriers to access health care due to the government’s limited efforts to provide even basic health services to persons with disabilities. Despite the review of the basic package of health services in 2004, the resources allocated to access health care and services for persons with disabilities are insufficient; resulting, this group is  worse off  since 2005. Hospitals, polyclinics and clinics continue not to be easily accessible, especially outside of urban centers, and reaching such places to obtain services, physical rehabilitation and mental health support is further impeded by poverty, dangers along the way and poor quality roads. The report further underlines the lack of, in particular female, trained technical health services providers. In a "male dominated society", this has further limited the possibilities of  women and girls with disabilities to access health services as they also need to be accompanied by a mahram (a male relative), - otherwise females with disabilities are often barred by their families from receiving care from male professionals. The country’s mental health services are extremely poor and there are critical gaps in rural areas, where they are virtually non-existent. This, combined with the lack of trained psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, caused many Afghan to suffer from psychological disabilities such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, which are often conflict-related. The report  also illustrates the barriers and the stigma associated with mental health conditions women from Afghanistan’s remote areas face in accessing adequate disability support and quality mental health services. Moreover, the lack of prenatal and maternal health care are directly related to some child disabilities, such as cerebral palsy being  the prevalent disability among Afghani children. In sum, the absence of proper transportation, the distance to clinics, the lack of female professionals and trained health care providers and the limited funds constitute significant barriers in accessing health care facilities. 

Afghani women's access to public transport and buildings is further aggravated for women with disabilities who also face cultural barriers in navigating public spaces. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), in 2016 only 0.2% of disabled persons interviewed had accessible toilets in their places of work and 2.9% had ramps. Infact, despite the government’s plans to add ramps, install elevators and equip buildings with accessible toilets, very few buildings are equipped to meet the needs of persons with disabilities. Moreover, AIHRC found that 67% of Afghans with disabilities had not voted in 2013 due to the inaccessibility of polling stations, the lack of assistance from polling station staff and  they not being in possession of  registration cards.

Overall, 90% of persons with disabilities are unemployed and the government’s efforts to make jobs available for them are clearly insufficient and according to the Community Centre for the Disabled, less than 1% of persons with disabilities are currently working in the public service while 3% of the jobs in this sector should be reserved for them. According to a government official for social and support services, it is even more difficult for women with disabilities to find a job “because in a male dominated society, employment of women is less common”. This led the International Red Cross Committee and some local NOGs to develop,  in collaboration with public institutions, awareness programs and policies on the hiring of persons  with disabilities because “disability is not incompetence and […] does not impede their working potential”.

The report also highlights that the harassment of women by "using words or committing acts by any means which causes damage to the personality, body and psyche of a woman” is prohibited by  the Afghan Elimination of violence against women law. Although the law forbids any verbal/non-verbal abuse, hostile action, abuse or intimidation against women, sexual harassment is widespread in Afghanistan due to the fact that laws are hardly enforced. A representative of a NGO advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan notes that sexual harassment against women with disabilities was a serious problem because of the associated stigma, stating that “we cannot talk about this issue publicly as it will make us more vulnerable” and very few women with disabilities report cases of abuse.  Many, Afghan women with disabilities are concerned about their social isolation, public humiliation and being denied access to public spaces amid gender discrimination and gender-based violence, deploring that “Young girls with disabilities are ashamed of going out, and their families exacerbate this situation. For example, I know a family who doesn’t let their girl come out of the house, only because she has a disability.”

The report concludes by recommending  to the Afghan government to: develop sustainable solutions to increase access to education for children with disabilities, in particular girls; facilitate access to schools by training teachers and making classrooms fully accessible; implement a review of legislation and policies in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and establish complaint mechanisms and appropriate remedies to ensure that any abusive or harassing behaviour is investigated by authorities.


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Author: Silvia Luminati

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