When Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August last year, international observers debated whether the Islamist fundamentalist group would be able to govern one of the world’s poorest countries exhausted by decades of foreign occupation. One year on, statistics show a country spiralling into systemic poverty and hunger, extrajudicial killings and the erosion of hard-won gains in female education.
Data from the World Food Programme (WFP) suggests that most basic food and non-food items remain available, but rapidly increasing global energy and food prices coupled with drought conditions in the country will lead to inflation in a country that is already struggling. According to data published by the World Bank last month, the cost of basic household goods in Afghanistan has surged by at least 50 per cent in terms of year-on-year inflation. The price of diesel, for example, has shot up by 95 per cent, while the cost of wheat and cooking oil has also increased by more than 50 per cent in the past year.
The country’s statistics agency has not yet released prices for goods in June 2022, but the World Bank has estimated that the inflation rate in the consumer price index to be at 15.4 per cent, driven mainly by food inflation of 23.2 per cent.
These record-high food prices in Afghanistan are pushing large swathes of the country into acute food insecurity. According to the latest data published by the WFP, almost 20 million people across all 34 provinces are currently facing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. The WFP also recently reported that people living in the central province of Ghor have plunged into ”catastrophic” levels of acute malnutrition, signalling the real possibility of a famine.
More than one million children below the age of five are at particular risk of dying due to a lack of food, and are likely to suffer from prolonged acute malnutrition. This means that even if they survive, these children are likely to suffer significant health problems, including stunting, according to the WFP. Since last August, more than 90 per cent of Afghans have been suffering varying levels of food insecurity, which includes either skipping meals or whole days of eating, or resorting to extreme coping mechanisms to buy food, such as sending children to work.
Adding to the humanitarian crisis is the collapse of annual per capita income. After the Taliban seized power, the US and other foreign aid donors imposed severe restrictions on Afghanistan’s banking sector, effectively curtailing the flow of humanitarian aid and legitimate economic activity. “Afghanistan’s intensifying hunger and health crisis is urgent and at its root is a banking crisis,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Regardless of the Taliban’s status or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions are still driving the country’s catastrophe and hurting the Afghan people.”
A decade ago, Afghans could expect to earn approximately $650 a year, but new estimates from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) indicate that this is likely to plunge to $350 in 2022. Researchers have also provided projections of Afghanistan’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) to contract by 20 per cent from $20bn in 2020 to $16bn by the end of 2022.
And it is on track to get worse. Last December, the UNDP administrator Achim Steiner warned that current Taliban policies restricting women from working could result in an “immediate economic loss of up to US$1 billion”, or up to 5 per cent of Afghanistan’s total GDP. “Failing to invest in half of the country’s human capital – in girls’ education – will have dire socio-economic consequences for years to come,” he said.
Statistics on the number of girls enrolled in primary schools across Afghanistan in the past two decades reveal the remarkable progress made in female education, and what is at stake if women continue to be restricted from studying. Between 1996 to 2001 when the Taliban were previously in power, enrolment figures for girls in primary schools stood at just 3.8 per cent. This figure rapidly increased to 43 per cent in 2002, and almost doubled to 85 per cent by the end of 2019.
According to an analysis by Save the Children and Unicef, almost 80 per cent (850,000 out of 1.1 million) of secondary school girls are not attending classes after the Taliban extended the ban on female education. Earlier this month, a Taliban spokesperson admitted that the ban on girls studying in lower levels of education will, by default, translate into a ban on university degrees for women.
But despite the dire state of female education in the country, one activist who fled this year remains defiant. Speaking to the New Statesman by phone from Pakistan, Ozlam, a 24-year-old Afghan LGBTQ+ activist, said that she would continue to raise the issue of a woman’s right to education wherever she was. “Afghan women are strong and one day we will go back to school, and I’ll continue to fight for this until the end of my life,” she said.
Such restrictions on the role of women in Afghan society have also extended to the ailing healthcare system. Reports have emerged of midwives being prevented from examining women without a mahram, a male chaperone. But Afghan women have played a crucial role in the country’s progress in public health in the past two decades.
From physicians, nurses and midwives to pharmacists, women healthcare workers in Afghanistan have contributed to plummeting rates in maternal and child mortality, as well as polio eradication efforts. In 2020, women made up almost half of Afghanistan’s community health worker programme, and Afghan female health workers were recently celebrated by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Population Fund for their contributions to the country’s healthcare system.
In recent months, the Taliban have gone to great lengths to portray themselves as a governing power grounded in law and order. Data from Afghanistan’s statistics agency consistently shows low levels of crime, with theft, murder and most other criminal offences decreasing. Two days after the Taliban takeover, the group also announced an amnesty for former government officials and members of the Afghan National Army.
But recent reports from aid groups paint a markedly different picture. Last month, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan released a damning report detailing at least 160 extrajudicial killings of former government and security officials by Taliban groups between 15 August 2021 and 15 June 2022. Amnesty International has also published reports on a wave of arbitrary arrests and unlawful killings across the country. In the Panjshir province, where an insurgent group calling itself the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan has a strong presence, a man named Abdul Munir Amini was reportedly tortured to death in June.
[See also: Afghanistan after the fall]