Imagine trying to feed your family and keep them safe amid on-going conflict and growing food insecurity brought on by climate change; then the coronavirus pandemic hits. That’s the grim reality women in Afghanistan are confronting.
The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating existing problems for Afghan women like widespread unemployment, dramatic price hikes for basic food items and increasing gender-based violence. ActionAid Afghanistan is working to support women most at risk by mobilising community leaders to spread vital health messages, delivering food and basic necessities to vulnerable families and maintaining safe spaces for women.
In April, 10.9 million Afghans, or about 35% of the population, were estimated to be experiencing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. In urban centres, the economic impact of COVID-19 is devastating daily-wage earners adding to the numbers going hungry. As street vendors, domestic workers and other informal economy workers lose jobs due the lockdowns, many households are struggling to make ends meet. Few can afford to buy food at the markets where prices have gone up by 10 to 20%.
An ActionAid survey across six provinces found that half of respondents had lost income since the pandemic began and 41% said they were now borrowing food to survive. Many families are even reducing the number of meals they eat to make rations last longer.
Sudipta Kumar, country director of ActionAid Afghanistan said, “the main problem of food insecurity is being faced by the informal sector workers, particularly people who are working on a daily wage such as domestic workers… If a domestic worker is not going to work then obviously the employer will not pay.”
He continued, “the average size of a family is seven. For informal sector workers that can be many mouths to feed and they only eat if they are working. That means those people are going hungry.”
ActionAid is supporting the most marginalised families in Kabul with ration packs of nutritious food for seven people for 30 days. Households headed by women are prioritised as are those with a disabled family member and daily wage earners who have lost their income
Since only a handful of houses in these communities have running water ActionAid is also supplying families with a jerry can so they can store water to wash their hands. This is a basic but essential measure to stop the spread of Coronavirus. Hygiene kits with face masks, soap, cleaning products, toothbrushes, toothpaste and nail clippers have also been provided.
On top of this ActionAid Afghanistan is ramping up efforts to spread Coronavirus messaging to rural communities. They are handing out fliers, putting up posters in markets and village squares and using vans with megaphones to explain how to practice social distancing in shops and public places. ActionAid has also enlisted the help of religious community leaders to use their influence to dispel myths about the disease and encourage public safety. As an NGO ActionAid has also been able to access conflict-areas and reach people who are isolated and vulnerable.
“Our partners are using bicycles and vans with public address systems to go around and spread the message of prevention. Wherever suitable we are trying to work with young people and volunteers so that they can work within their own villages… We also use WhatsApp groups with our partners to pass on new information that we receive from WHO so that our staff and volunteers have the most up-to-date information,” Mr Kumar said.
One of the young volunteers bringing health advice to his region in Sheberghan is twenty-year-old Royeen Ishaq, who says, “I am really proud that I did something for my people to help save their lives by raising their awareness about COVID-19.”
Sixteen-year-old Azada was on the other end of this initiative and received ActionAid’s health advice, as well as food and hygiene supplies, in Jawzjan province where most residents don’t have easy access to the media and have been largely uninformed about Coronavirus. Although there has been nearly 200 cases and 6 deaths in the region Azada said advice from ActionAid volunteers has led her to take the disease seriously and spread awareness within her community. Azada and her four sisters take care of their father who is blind while her brother usually works as a daily wage earner to support the family. Since the pandemic began Azada’s brother lost his income, risking all of their livelihoods.
“I did not have any information about Coronavirus before. Not only me, but my family members and the rest of the women and children in my community were not aware of this virus. I heard somehow from my friends but I did not think before it was as fatal as it is,” Azada said.
“We live in remote areas and do not have access to electricity, TV, radio and social media. I did not know how to prevent my family and myself from infecting with this virus. Fortunately, ActionAid gave us awareness about this virus and now I know to wash my hands regularly, use a mask, keep social distancing and avoiding going to the busy places. In addition, I conveyed this message to my family members and friends to protect them from infecting with Coronavirus.”
By utilising the influence and enthusiasm of young people like Azada and Royeen, ActionAid knows real change can occur. By empowering them with information they can become leaders within their communities now and long-after the threat of COVID-19 has passed.
However, the health risks are not the only affects of Coronavirus. With more family members at home, the stress of income loss and food insecurity there is also a growing threat of gender-based violence. Across six provinces 43% of respondents told ActionAid that there has been a rise in domestic violence during lockdown. To help minimise this and to ensure reporting of violence, ActionAid’s safe spaces for women have and will remain open. Although they have had to adjust to comply with social distancing they will continue to run and provide support and intervention to local women in need. This is a core priority for the ActionAid Afghanistan team who have over the last two years worked hard to establish community support, reporting processes and mediation for cases of gender-based violence. This work has never been more important.
COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on millions of people in Afghanistan who already don’t have enough to eat and whose livelihoods are now completely shut down. We are seeing dramatic rises in gender-based violence and families going hungry. We must act now! Help us reach those most vulnerable by donating today.