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Afghanistan: activists sound alarm over surge in suicide among women

August 1, 2023 at 11:35 am

Afghan women on July 25, 2023 [WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images]

A teenage girl ended her life last week by hanging herself at her home in Afghanistan’s rugged central province of Bamyan, Anadolu has reported. Her family refrained from disclosing any details about her death, but a neighbour told local media that she was particularly distressed about not being able to go to school, a result of the Taliban administration’s ban on education for women and girls.

A day later, in another part of Afghanistan, a 23-year-old woman shot herself. According to local media reports, she took the step as an escape from an abusive household to which she was confined.

Social media accounts of Afghan news outlets are teeming with such reports of women committing suicide. Activists say that there has been a surge ever since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. With concrete figures hard to find, rights groups fear that the issue and numbers are vastly underreported.

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According to local channel Tolo News, there were 250 suicide attempts in the country last year; 188 of them were women. Maryam Marof Arwin, who heads Afghanistan Women and Children Strengthen Welfare Organisation, said that the local NGO receives reports of at least nine to eleven suicides by women every month, many of them young girls. However, the actual number could be in the hundreds, she told Anadolu.

“Most of the suicides are in places such as Takhar, Kunduz, Bamyan, Badghis, Faryab, Mazar-i-Sharif, and other rural areas,” said Arwin. She cited two main factors for the underreporting of the issue: reluctance on the families’ part and pressure from the Taliban. “The Taliban tries to suppress reports of suicides. Most of the time it doesn’t allow the media to publish these reports. But we are seeing an increase in the number of suicides, and we are worried about the situation of women, especially girls.”

The main reason for the spike in suicides among women is their deteriorating living standards in Afghanistan, say activists. Depression is rampant, they claim, particularly due to the ban on education and employment, which is aggravating the already dire economic conditions of scores of families mired in poverty. Other factors include forced marriages, domestic violence and the general lack of any social life.

The former deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s Parliament, Fawzia Koofi, told the UN Human Rights Council last year that Afghan women were taking their lives out of desperation. “Every day, there are at least one or two women who commit suicide for the lack of opportunity, for the mental health, for the pressure they are under,” she said. “The fact that girls as young as nine years old are being sold, not only because of economic pressure, but because of the fact that there is no hope for them, for their family, it is not normal.”

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More recently, a June report by UN-appointed rights experts warned of systematic “gender apartheid” and “gender persecution” in Afghanistan under the Taliban. “Grave, systematic and institutionalised discrimination against women and girls is at the heart of Taliban ideology and rule, which also gives rise to concerns that it may be responsible for gender apartheid,” UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan Richard Bennett told the council in Geneva.

The interim Taliban administration, however, rejected the claims. Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid accused the “UN and some Western institutions and governments” of spreading “propaganda that does not reflect reality.”

However, activists disagree. Due to the curbs imposed by the Taliban, they say, many women, including widows and those with no men in their families, have been left with no means to earn and survive.

“These women were actually responsible for supporting their families. The Taliban took away their jobs and they are now jobless,” said Hamid Samar, the founder of ZAN TV, the first channel to broadcast specifically for Afghanistan’s women. “They’re at home now and worrying about how they will feed their families.”