Imagine being confined to your home. Imagine not being able to go to work or attend school or play sports. Over the course of the past year, individuals across the world have experienced such limitations. While many are inching closer towards glimpses of life before these restrictions, for Afghans with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, this is more likely to become an enduring reality.
Almost twenty years after their first regime, the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan, raising concerns that the same violations of the rights of women and other minorities will be committed again (for a brief history of Afghanistan and the Taliban, visit a previous article on the IHR blog linked here). While no longer a minority in terms of numbers, the 80% of adults in Afghanistan who are disabled are already seeing these concerns materialize. Disability rights advocates are being targeted, with many fleeing the country out of a fear for their lives and many more desperately trying to do the same. In light of these events, this article explores the status of individuals with disabilities in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban came into power, and how their future might look.
Disability in Afghanistan
The war in the 1990’s devastated health systems in Afghanistan, leading to individuals with disabilities being neglected. After the Taliban was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001, there was an influx of international funding to help rebuild the infrastructure of the country. NGOs and other international organizations attempted to fill the gap in the health system by offering medical services, although the demand did, and continues to, exceed the supply. Moreover, reconstruction efforts in the country were not inclusive of people with disabilities, as bus transports, buildings and bathrooms were inaccessible which made it difficult for individuals with disabilities to navigate their daily lives outside of their homes. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on Rights of People with Disability in 2012 and even passed legislation in 2013 that was meant to safeguard the rights of individuals with disabilities to be included in society. Although awareness regarding disability has increased over the past two decades, and disability rights have been named a priority by the former government, much of the work towards this end has been carried out by NGOs, international organizations, and dedicated activists.
In addition to systemic barriers, the societal attitudes and stigma pertaining to disability is also a significant factor impacting the lives of disabled individuals in Afghanistan. Different kinds of disability are viewed differently, receiving varying degrees of negative attitudes. Congenital disability, or developmental disability, is considered a punishment to the parents for their past deeds. This problematic perception leads to discrimination against the individual with the disability, as well as their family, to such an extent that the parents tell others that their child acquired the disability as a result of the war. Amputees, on the other hand, do not face the same discrimination because they are assumed to be war veterans. One individual with a physical disability described to the Human Rights Watch her experience of this stigma: “Some time ago, my friends and I decided to go to the market in our own wheelchairs and shop ourselves. But people called us ‘grasshoppers,’ which is why we decided to stay at home.” Such accounts depict how the freedom and independence of individuals with disabilities is being curtailed not only by structural barriers, but also by regressive attitudes.
Disability under the Taliban
Benafsha Yaqoobi, a blind disability rights advocate and a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), stated in multiple interviews that individuals with disabilities will be discriminated against under the Taliban rule, experiencing severe neglect and even death. She is concerned about their access to basic human rights like food and shelter. Yaqoobi had to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban takeover seemed imminent. She described her traumatic experience in attempting to escape, as she heard gun fire but could not see where the guns were pointed or who got shot – or if it was her husband who was wounded. Her experience also highlights just one way in which war can have a disproportionate psychological, and physical, impact on people with disabilities.
Isabella Hodge, executive director of the United States International Council on Disability (USICD), told The Nation that there is also concern that stipends will no longer be provided to individuals who were disabled in war and that rehabilitation centers will close. Hodge strongly believes that individuals with disabilities will not be valued by the Taliban, saying that the “Taliban wouldn’t think twice about killing someone with a disability.” These concerns are reflected in reality when considering that 80% of suicide bombers of the Taliban had either a physical or psychological disability of some kind. Dr.Yusef Yadgari of Kabul Medical University attributed this statistic to societal stigma, due to which people with disabilities struggle to find employment to support their family. Out of both necessity for money and resentment, according to Dr.Yadgari, they are more likely to become suicide bombers. However, one cannot help but question how much value that the Taliban attributes to the lives of people with disabilities when they were willing to sacrifice so many for their cause.
With the Taliban’s rise to power, people with disabilities will likely have less opportunities to flourish. One stark example of this is that Tokyo 2020 Paralympic athletes from Afghanistan almost lost the opportunity to participate in the event because of the dearth of flight transport created by the turmoil in August. Fortunately, with the help of the international community, these athletes did manage to finally make it to Tokyo, although one athlete missed the event he was preparing for. Opportunities and freedom of people with disability does not seem to be a priority. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi echoed similar concerns in an interview with Reuters – that people with disabilities will be confined to their homes and isolated from the rest of society due to the loss of programs and initiatives like the Special Olympics (which works specifically with people with intellectual disabilities). Sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities is a great way to develop essential life skills like walking and eating. Zala Hashmi, a women’s coach in the country’s special Olympics organization, believes that the Taliban does not care enough for the success of these individuals to ensure the continuation of such programs. The grim situation is put best in Jawed’s own words: “we cannot support them, we lost them.”
Women with Disabilities
Women with disabilities experienced intersectional discrimination in Afghanistan long before the Taliban came into power. They are often considered a burden to the family and are considered not fit for marriage, consequently increasing their likelihood of being subject to violence both in and outside the household. Women with disability are also more likely to be sexually harassed when seeking government assistance or employment. One individual in an interview with the Human Rights Watch said, “the ministry employee told me that I can get this certificate only if I agree to be his girlfriend”. The status of education of girls with disabilities is not any more promising. In a Human Rights Watch report, a disability rights advocate describes the pushback from schools in accepting girls with disabilities: “The schools do not want girls [with disabilities] to go to the classes. Usually, they argue that they are not normal people so they cannot sit in the classrooms and learn like other students.” In addition to this stigma, public schools are not wheel-chair accessible, leaving some kids out of the classroom and other school related activities, while few private schools enroll people with disabilities at all. Moreover, schools are also often far and difficult to reach without dedicated transportation, which is often not available.
These inequities for women with disabilities are likely going to be exacerbated under the Taliban. While the Taliban promises that they will uphold the rights and freedom of women, their actions so far have not conveyed the same message. Women have been removed from their jobs, which has been particularly devastating in cases where they are the sole earners in the family. Women have already been told to stay at home for security reasons, an excuse that sounds eerily similar to the one they provided during their time in power in the late 1990s as they imposed oppressive restrictions on women. This confinement will be particularly detrimental for women with disabilities, compromising their access to rehabilitative services and other beneficial activities like sports. Nilofar Bayat, a women’s rights activist and captain of national wheelchair basketball team, expressed deep concern about girls with disabilities not being allowed to play sports, saying their disability will become more severe without the activity. In addition to this, the barriers to education for women with disabilities will also increase under the Taliban, who completely banned education for women during their previous regime.
Support for People with Disabilities
Disability rights activists in Afghanistan are being targeted due their association with the United States, leading to a decline in supportive services offered to individuals with disabilities. The United States International Council on Disability (USICD) reported that around 50 disability rights advocates are currently in danger of being attacked by the Taliban and are in urgent need of evacuation. Many of them participated in a conference on disability rights organized by USICD and the Afghanistan embassy in 2017 and received grant funding from the U.S., putting them in a precarious position. One advocate describes severe persecution, being forced to move from one house to another to avoid being captured after the Taliban launched a grenade into his house and attempted to find him at his organization’s office. He told The Nation that the Taliban believes advocates are spying for the US because they received grant funding from the U.S. The evacuation plan of the US did not account for the needs of people with disabilities either, as multiple disability rights advocates were unable to make their way around Kabul airport. One amputee had to return home due to extreme pain. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi believed the Taliban was searching for them as well, coming to their offices and damaging their property. All this points to the fact that disability advocates will find it increasingly difficult to play their crucial role in supporting the disabled community. For example, initiatives to make bathrooms more accessible, to provide rehabilitation, to conduct vocational training, and to provide trauma care service for land mine victims all are at risk of being lost. The champions of the rights of individuals with disability are being silenced.
Disability rights activists are not the only ones facing difficulties in continuing operations – humanitarian organizations too are struggling to continue providing their essential services. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that approximately three-quarters of organizations faced challenges in providing aide since August. The Taliban has a history of actively clamping down on organizations providing humanitarian aid and health services as well, banning the Red Cross and WHO in 2019 from operating in its territories after claiming they were carrying out “suspicious” activities and not sticking to their mission. They have since lifted the ban, and Red Cross is providing services currently, but this incident sets a chilling precedent to the relationship we can expect to see in the future between the Taliban and international aid organizations. In addition to this, a Human Rights Watch review reported that the increase in conflict since 2016 has led to increased difficulty in collecting data from rural areas. This is likely to be the case in Afghanistan’s current state of turmoil, making it difficult to assess the needs of people with disability and whether they are being addressed.
In a recent report, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that health systems in Afghanistan are on the brink of collapse, partly due to a decrease in funding. While the services provided by aide organizations and advocates are far from being able satisfying the immense demand, and by no means replace systemic efforts to rectify the situation, the role of advocates and aide organizations is undoubtedly more important than ever to ensure people with disabilities are not neglected.
The Taliban take-over might deconstruct the existing structures, but there is no guarantee that that they will build them back, let alone build them back better. It is disheartening to know that the violations minorities experienced under the Taliban occurred for more than five year and would have continued for longer if the US did not invade in 2001. My point is not to comment on the merit of the “war on terror” but to point out the more prolonged, devastating consequences that could have occurred in the past, and that very well may occur in the foreseeable future, due to insufficient action by the international community. The international community needs to mobilize resources to aid those who are disproportionately impacted by this transition. You and I can contribute to bettering the situation in Afghanistan as well. Consider donating to trusted humanitarian aid organizations, like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and UN Women, that are doing essential work on the ground. Humanitarian aide itself, however, is insufficient – foreign governments need to increase pressure on the Taliban to guarantee the rights and well-being of marginalized communities.