Women sitting in the waiting area outside MSF’s Ambulatory Therapeutic Feeding Centre (ATFC) in Kandahar, Afghanistan. © Tasal Khogyani/MSF

MSF condemns the ban on women working for NGOs and their erasure from public life in Afghanistan

After months of continuous restrictions placed on the female population of Afghanistan, limitations placed on their participation in everyday life, access to education, and most recently even the right to work for non-governmental organizations, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) strongly condemns the Islamic Emirate’s erasure of women from social life in the country.

“More than 51 per cent of our medical staff are women. We are talking about nearly 900 doctors, nurses and other professionals who strive every day to give thousands of Afghans the best care possible. MSF operations couldn’t exist without them. This newest directive is just another step in a systematic attempt to expunge women’s presence from the public domain, to everyone’s detriment,” says Filipe Ribeiro, MSF Country Representative in Afghanistan, on the most recent ban.  

In a country with a population which is mostly dependent on humanitarian aid and confronted with rampant poverty fuelled by skyrocketing unemployment, female workers play a critical role in the provision of humanitarian assistance and health care services. No organization, however big or small, can deliver assistance to communities in need without their participation.  

The consequences of this latest decree will hit vulnerable groups the hardest, such as female patients and children, for whom it will become even more difficult, if not impossible, to see physicians. For the time being, all of MSF’s activities have been maintained as our female colleagues continue to work unhindered in the health facilities managed by MSF and the Ministry of Health. This must not change; prohibiting women from working would effectively prevent them from accessing healthcare. “Over 90 per cent of our medical staff in Khost Maternity Hospital are females. They assist with the delivery of 1,800 babies every month. If this policy is fully implemented, more mothers will face additional, perhaps insurmountable, barriers to prenatal and postnatal services. They’ll have nowhere to go,” says Ribeiro.     

After the closure of secondary schools in March 2022, the Ministry of Higher Education also announced the decision to bar women from attending private and public universities earlier this month. This will undoubtedly worsen the situation in the long-term. “The healthcare system in Afghanistan struggles to meet people’s basic needs. If patients can’t get treatment today, what will happen in the future when half of all potential medical students are not allowed to study?” asks Ribeiro. “In Khost, we already find it challenging to fill all necessary positions, including gynaecologists, who are extremely scarce across the region. We need more female doctors, not fewer.”

Excluding women in this way goes against every principle of humanity and medical ethics to which health professionals subscribe. “If women are prevented from working in health facilities, and if women can only be treated by women, then it will be virtually impossible for them to access healthcare. As a result, no healthcare provider, including MSF, will be able to deliver medical services in Afghanistan.” concludes Ribeiro.

In order for essential services to be available for all genders, they must be delivered by all genders. That is why MSF in Afghanistan remains committed to serve all those in need of medical care, by maintaining our current teams as they are.

MSF in Afghanistan

MSF runs seven projects in Helmand, Kunduz, Herat, Khost, Kabul, Kandahar and Bamiyan with a particular focus on delivering secondary healthcare. More than 1,700 medical professionals work for the organization in Afghanistan, 894 of whom are female, 835 are male. In 2022, MSF teams were responsible for over 250,000 outpatient consultations, 42,000 inpatient admissions, 71,000 emergency room admissions, 11,000 surgical interventions, 35,000 deliveries. There were 5,000 children enrolled at the ambulatory therapeutic feeding centres, 7,000 children admitted to the inpatient therapeutic feeding centres,& 9,500 measles patients treated, 22,000 consultations for drug-sensitive tuberculosis, 2,000 drug-sensitive tuberculosis patients started on treatment and 80 drug-resistant tuberculosis patients enrolled on treatment.