After months of witnessing new restrictions placed on women in Afghanistan—including limitations placed on their participation in everyday life, access to education, and, this week, the right to work for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) strongly condemns the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s erasure of women from public life in the country.
“More than 51 percent of our medical staff [in Afghanistan] are women,” said Filipe Ribeiro, MSF country representative in Afghanistan. “We are talking about nearly 900 doctors, nurses, and other professionals who strive every day to give thousands of Afghans the best care possible. MSF operations couldn’t exist without them. This newest directive is just another step in a systematic attempt to expunge women’s presence from the public domain—to everyone’s detriment.”
Female workers play a critical role in the provision of humanitarian assistance and health care services in Afghanistan—a country where people are mostly dependent on humanitarian aid and face extreme poverty in part fueled by skyrocketing unemployment. No organization—however big or small—can deliver assistance to communities in need without the participation of women.
The consequences of this latest decree will hit vulnerable groups the hardest, such as female patients and children, for whom it will become even more difficult—if not impossible—to see physicians.
For the time being, all of MSF's activities have been maintained as our female colleagues continue to work unhindered in the health facilities managed by MSF and the Ministry of Health. This must not change: Prohibiting women from working would effectively prevent women and girls from accessing health care.
Excluding women from the work force is against every principle of humanity and medical ethics to which health professionals subscribe. “If women are prevented from working in health facilities, and if women can only be treated by women, then it will be virtually impossible for them to access health care,” said Ribeiro. “As a result, no health care provider, including MSF, will be able to deliver medical services in Afghanistan.”
“Over 90 percent of our medical staff in Khost Maternity Hospital are females,” said Ribeiro. “They assist with the delivery of 1,800 babies every month. If this policy is fully implemented, more mothers will face additional—perhaps insurmountable—barriers to prenatal and postnatal services. They’ll have nowhere to go.”
In addition to the closure of secondary schools in March 2022, the Ministry of Higher Education recently announced the decision to ban women from attending private and public universities. This will undoubtedly worsen the situation in the long-term.
“The health care system in Afghanistan struggles to meet people’s basic needs,” said Ribeiro. “If patients can’t get treatment today, what will happen in the future when half of all potential medical students are not allowed to study. In Khost, we already find it challenging to fill all necessary positions, including gynecologists who are extremely scarce across the region. We need more female doctors, not fewer.”
In order for essential services to be available to all genders, they must be delivered by all genders. That is why MSF in Afghanistan remains committed to serve all those in need of medical care, by maintaining our current teams as they are.
In Afghanistan, MSF runs seven projects focused on secondary health care in Helmand, Kunduz, Herat, Khost, Kabul, Kandahar, and Bamiyan. More than 1,700 medical professionals work for MSF in Afghanistan, 894 of whom are female, 835 are male. In 2022, MSF teams provided more than 250,000 outpatient consultations, 42,000 inpatient admissions, 71,000 emergency room admissions, 11,000 surgical interventions, and 35,000 deliveries. Across MSF’s projects, there were 5,000 children enrolled at the ambulatory therapeutic feeding centers, 7,000 children admitted to the inpatient therapeutic feeding centers, 9,500 measles patients treated, 22,000 consultations for drug-sensitive tuberculosis, 2,000 drug-sensitive tuberculosis patients started on treatment, and 80 drug-resistant tuberculosis patients enrolled on treatment.