Afghanistan’s Healthcare Crisis, Daily Brief February 12, 2024

Daily Brief, February 12, 2024.


Afghanistan’s public healthcare system was ailing even before the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. For decades, much of it had depended on donor funding. Since the Taliban’s takeover, however, most development spending has ceased. Today, the country’s economy is on the verge of collapse - and so is its heath care system.


With millions having lost their jobs over the last two and a half years, families are facing harsh choices: Do they spend the little money there is on food or take their malnourished children to the doctor and buy medicines?


Not surprisingly, Afghanistan’s women and girls are particularly hard hit by this crisis. As regular readers of this newsletter will know, the country has become one of the most repressive worldwide for women and girls.


For more than two years now, Afghan women and girls have been refused access to secondary education. Most training for future female healthcare workers has stopped as a result. This has created potentially life-threatening shortages in the provision of healthcare for women.


Even before August 2021, Afghanistan had one of the highest rates of maternal deaths per capita in Asia, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. With half of all potential medical students not allowed to study things are bound to get worse. Simply put: In a country where male doctors are not allowed to see female patients, if women workers are not there to deliver aid to women, women will most likely go without aid altogether.

If this wasn’t bad enough, in some provinces doctors have been instructed not to treat any female patient who is not accompanied by a mahram – a male guardian - and is not covered from head to toe. How can a doctor properly diagnose someone if they can’t examine them? Are women comfortable divulging their medical history in front of a father, uncle, cousin or brother?

“My family won’t understand,” Mehria A., a woman in Nangarhar, who has experienced depression, told my colleague Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, during research for her report “‘A Disaster for the Foreseeable Future’: Afghanistan’s Healthcare Crisis”. “I wish there were confidential services available for women so I could seek those.”

Female doctors are also obliged to be accompanied by a male guardian – often even at work. This has increased costs for clinics, as the guardian needs to be paid for food and transport, while making the delivery of community health services more difficult because skilled healthcare workers who don’t have mahram can’t work. And all of this, while people are in greater need, with millions of children suffering from malnutrition and depression among women on the rise.

“The unprecedented economic crisis in Afghanistan has meant that millions are facing life-threatening conditions,” says Fereshta. “The situation demands more than humanitarian aid, it requires sustainable efforts to avert further economic decline and alleviate the immense suffering of the Afghan population.”

The response of governments and international organizations to this crisis, though, has been poor if not apathetic. It’s high time world leaders stood by the Afghan people and showed more determination to alleviate the ever-increasing misery life under the Taliban has meant for women and girls in particular.