Taliban's War on Women
Afghan widows waiting for food in KabulThe Taliban's War on Women
New York Times Editorial
(Nov. 6, 1997)

A woman comes into a Kabul hospital with burns over 80 percent of her body. An official of the Taliban, the fundamentalist group ruling most of Afghanistan, prohibits the doctor from undressing her. The doctor says she will die if he does not treat her. "Many Taliban die on the battlefield," replies the official. The woman, untreated, dies.

Since the Taliban took power a year ago, their decrees have narrowed the world for women. Women may no longer work or go to school. They may not leave their houses without an approved reason. They may not talk to or ride in a vehicle alongside men who are not relatives.

A decree issued this fall was the most extreme of all. It barred women from non-emergency hospital care at Kabul's hospitals and shunted them to a single women's hospital. That hospital is being rebuilt, which will take six months to a year. Meanwhile, women may go only to the Central Polyclinic, which has no running water, no electricity in most rooms, no lab or X-ray facilities and no operating equipment or instruments. The Polyclinic's decrepitude is only one obstacle to health care for women. No edict prohibits emergency care for women at other hospitals, but some officials seem to be enforcing one anyway, frightening many doctors into withholding life-saving care. Doctors also report that because the religious police often stop cars, women delay seeking care until they are very sick. They must travel twice when the nearest hospital sends them to the Polyclinic.

The hurdles for women also prevent their children from getting timely medical care. In addition, last month the Taliban announced a ban on all drawings and images of human beings. Health workers were forced to scrap their educational posters, which are the only way to communicate with a largely illiterate public.

Some of the Taliban's less radical members have opposed the health-care ban, and humanitarian groups have indications that it may be reversed. But other medieval restrictions on women remain and more will certainly arise. Western governments must make it clear that continued oppression will cost the Taliban aid and harm its bid to win Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations, currently held by the previous Government.

Since the rise of the Taliban, the humanitarian organizations that provide almost all the health care and social services in Afghanistan have been wrestling with whether to follow Taliban rules or pull out. Most, realizing that the Taliban may well sacrifice all health care if any of it violates their views, have stayed when they could and tried to press the Taliban for change. They have lobbied particularly hard to reverse the health-care ban. This was undoubtedly the best choice -- until now. But the harm created by the ban has divided the humanitarian community. The World Health Organization's financing of the reconstruction of the new women's hospital is especially controversial. The W.H.O. has agreed to send a fact-finding group to review its participation.

Humanitarian groups are increasingly facing the dilemma of what to do when their help provides short-term relief but exacerbates a long-term problem. The situation in Afghanistan is not as extreme as in Bosnia, Rwanda or Liberia, where groups departed because their aid actively helped belligerents keep shooting. But pulling out of health care may be the right thing to do if the discriminatory and deadly ban stays.

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