Look around any of Afghanistan’s large cities – Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar – and it is easy to see that Afghanistan is facing an internal displacement crisis. Camps and settlements for Afghanistan’s 820,000 internally displaced people (IDPs); forced by conflict or natural disaster from their homes, sprawl out for miles on the city fringes, with thousands of new arrivals every week. With an ongoing civil war, a land prone to devastating floods, avalanches and drought, this year that figure is expected to climb to one million.
Afghanistan’s IDP camps are miserable places. As part of my work with the Norwegian Refugee Council, I regularly see the appalling conditions that families are forced to live in. Children play in filthy and rubbish-strewn areas alongside stray animals, unemployed men wander around idle and frustrated, and there is little access to running water or appropriate hygiene facilities.
Women and girls are rarely seen. Due to cultural norms, they are often required by their families to stay secluded inside rudimentary homes. The lucky ones live in cramped, one-room mud shelters. Many only have simple tarpaulin tents too small to stand up in.
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Deeply conservative values
The consequences of this crisis are devastating for all of Afghanistan’s displaced people, but displaced women and girls suffer disproportionately to men.
In Afghanistan, female IDPs – who already face significant challenges in a country still dominated by deeply conservative values and lack of protection for their rights – are even more unlikely to have access to basics like education, healthcare and work.
Even more worryingly, Afghan women and girls when displaced are likely to be exploited by desperate families struggling to survive.
A new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council and Afghanistan has shed some new light on the disproportionate risks Afghan displaced women and girls face and how, trapped in a cycle of inadequate assistance and growing impoverishment, they describe living in “prison-like”, deplorable conditions in Afghanistan’s urban IDP camps. Those interviewed reported high rates of domestic violence, were more likely married off at a younger age and to settle debts, and suffered from unacceptable and dangerous levels of hunger.
There is a general expectation that women and girls displaced from their more conservative rural homelands should be able to enjoy fewer social constraints in a freer, more progressive big city like Kabul. But the opposite appears to be true. Across Afghanistan, young women and girls are being educated, including at universities, at impressive and higher rates than ever before.
Afghanistan’s displaced women and girls are being trapped in their tiny homes by deeply conservative families, unable to learn, work, socialise, seek help from others, or even see the world outside.
But 71 per cent of the displaced women and girls we interviewed reported that they had never attended school at all. In fact, only 40 percent said they were allowed to leave their tiny and ramshackle dwellings to visit friends, and only half said they were allowed to visit a doctor when they fell ill.
Simply, Afghanistan’s displaced women and girls are being trapped in their tiny homes by deeply conservative families, unable to learn, work, socialise, seek help from others, or even see the world outside.
These women and girls are also going hungry. Many told us that they eat only one meal a day – typically just bread – and nearly half of those interviewed are forced to buy food on credit. They also reported suffering high rates of domestic abuse, typically at the hands of their husbands, brothers, and mothers-in-law, and were more at risk of forced and early marriage.
For desperately poor IDP families, young women can represent a form of income when a suitor is able to pay a dowry. One young woman told us that IDP girls “are being sold in exchange for money like animals … we are often sold to widowers, blind men, disabled or old men and we have no choice to refuse marrying them”.
It is not surprising that these women and girls are not coping. Uprooted from their homes, family and community support structures break down and their access to traditional or formal justice systems diminishes. The testimony in the report confirms that many urban IDP women and girls are experiencing high levels of psychological trauma and are unable to access critically needed support.
Many committed members of Afghanistan’s humanitarian community are already working to respond to the needs of Afghan female IDPs. But it is clear there are enormous gaps. We need to do more to address the specific problems Afghan women and girls face in displacement. We must actively seek out the unseen and unheard women to better understand their needs. It is clear that more attention is needed prevent and respond to domestic violence and gender exploitation, such as early marriages. And with so many clearly not coping, mental health – especially for female IDPs, but also for all – must start being properly addressed in any humanitarian response.
Afghanistan has overwhelming and underfunded humanitarian needs and we are in real danger of failing Afghanistan’s women. We are continually calling on donors to step up their efforts and ensure that the gains achieved in the past 10 years are not lost. Already disadvantaged by their gender, the specific needs that Afghan females face when displaced must be recognised and addressed by the international community and Afghan government. It cannot be out of sight, out of mind – for many Afghanistan’s women and girl IDPs, they simply do not have anyone else to turn to for help.
Danielle Moylan is a former Australian diplomat, posted to the Australian Embassy in Tehran from 2012-2014. She is currently living and working in Kabul as Advocacy Manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the largest NGOs operating in Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.