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Afghanistan Flash Surveys to Glean Data on Perceptions of Women, Peace, the Economy, and Covid-19

September 16, 2020

By Sandy Feinzig

This week the Taliban and the Afghan government began peace talks in Qatar with the goal of shaping a power-sharing government to end decades of war. One issue at the heart of those talks is whether Afghanistan will hold on to the gains women have made in the past two decades. Another issue is the economy, decimated by the ongoing war, and a population 90 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

As peace talks open with the Taliban, Afghan women and girls have continued to suffer some of the world’s highest rates of domestic violence during the pandemic.

Against this daunting backdrop, Covid-19 in Afghanistan continues to have serious consequences for this struggling country. While just 37,676 cases have been officially reported in a population of approximately 37 million, international aid groups report that at least 80 percent of infections nationwide are likely going untested. The fragile healthcare system, the devastated economy, and the legacy of decades of conflict leave Afghanistan uniquely unprepared for a deadly pandemic, and a national lockdown in the initial months of the outbreak was quickly loosened when the economy went into free fall.

The economic consequences of the pandemic may be more severe than the public health crisis. The World Bank has projected an economic contraction of 5.5 to 7.4 percent in 2020, which could push the poverty rate as high as 72 percent by the end of the year and trigger a sharp decline in government revenues. Restricted imports, falling customs revenues, and the ripple effects on the manufacturing, construction, and service sectors are further stressing the brittle economy. Households that rely on daily labor for their livelihoods are among the most economically vulnerable. The World Bank has committed $380 million in support for Afghanistan, including food distribution programs, although desperate households might prefer cash subsidies to more flexibly meet their own needs.

The economic consequences of the pandemic may be more severe than the public health crisis. The World Bank projects a poverty rate as high as 72 percent by the end of the year.

For Afghan women and children, poverty, home confinement, lack of healthcare, and high levels of domestic violence are additional burdens. The incidence of violence has been on the rise as children have stayed home from school, and lost livelihoods and worsening poverty have exacerbated household tensions.

Unfortunately, women and girls have not had equal access to healthcare during this time of crisis. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health reported in July that fewer than one-third of confirmed cases of Covid-19 were women, a perplexing figure that officials attribute to women’s lack of access to healthcare in a deeply conservative society.

Afghan women and girls have continued during the pandemic to suffer from some of the world’s highest rates of gender-based violence, which affects a reported 87 percent of the female population, making Afghanistan one of the most dangerous countries for women and girls in the world.

The incidence of violence against women and children has been on the rise, as children have stayed home from school and lost livelihoods and worsening poverty have exacerbated household tensions.

Women who work outside the home have also faced disproportionate economic struggles. Confined to their houses at the beginning of the pandemic, many seeking to return to work are now finding that their jobs have disappeared in the ailing economy. Women entrepreneurs are also finding it difficult to reactivate their businesses in the face of the same obstacles as their male counterparts: lack of customers, closed borders, suspension of transportation, and lack of resources. Nearly half of the female-owned businesses in Balkh Province, which previously employed more than 2,000 women, were still shuttered weeks after coronavirus restrictions were lifted. Those that have reopened are operating at a fraction of their previous level, and many women have simply lost their livelihoods.

More research and data are needed. The Asia Foundation is now in the process of conducting a series of surveys, the Flash Surveys on Perceptions of Peace, the Economy, and Covid-19 in Afghanistan, which will make quarterly assessments of the rolling crisis and guide the humanitarian response. The Foundation will also be conducting a study on the effects of Covid-19 on vulnerable groups in Afghanistan’s border areas. Since the early 2000s, The Asia Foundation has conducted the annual Survey of the Afghan People, with in-person polling in all 34 provinces. The global health crisis has made that impossible this year, but the Flash Surveys will be stepping into the breach.

A new series of flash surveys by The Asia Foundation will make quarterly assessments of the rolling crisis and guide the humanitarian response.

As we await the data, and the insights that will be gleaned from these surveys, there are some actions to take now, particularly for Afghan women. Afghanistan has been unable to effectively combat gender-based violence in the past, and the hardships and dislocations of the pandemic have made the situation of women and girls even more challenging. Civil society must mobilize to direct resources to women-led organizations, which have developed local networks and mechanisms to provide services such as women’s support centers and shelters. Donors must connect with these civil society groups to address women’s special needs and concerns. Stakeholders should identify what has been effective so far in helping women and girls during this crisis. The Asia Foundation has already identified several smaller, local organizations that have mobilized quickly and effectively to provide relief, and our implementing partners have identified others. This information should be shared with all stakeholders.

When supporting community-based interventions, international organizations must avoid approaches that may look great on paper but require technology or connectivity that are just not available, or that may run afoul of Afghan social norms.

Jails and prisons have been hotbeds of Covid-19 around the world, and many women and girls convicted of “moral crimes” continue to be imprisoned under deplorable conditions. Turning our backs on this population means giving tacit support to a system that perpetuates gender-based violence, and international organizations should work with legal-aid groups and the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association to petition the President’s Office on their behalf. Efforts should be made to identify women who can safely be released, either to homes, halfway houses, or shelters.

There are some institutions, such as the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, headed by a woman, that can be effective partners to help mobilize civil society and coordinate with local government.

To move forward collaboratively, we must identify and empower more Afghan women who can lead the way—and they are out there! This global tragedy represents a singular opportunity for women to stand up and become agents of change—to be leaders as well as followers. Afghan women can rise to the occasion, but they must have the space and the place to do so, and the resources and support of the international development and humanitarian communities.

Sandy Feinzig is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Afghanistan. She can be reached at sandra.feinzig@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related topics: Covid-19

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