Whatever Happened to Women and Children First?

In Kabul, the children are everywhere. You see them scrounging through trash. You see them doing manual labor in auto body shops and construction sites. They carry teapots and glasses from shop to shop. You see them moving through the snarled traffic swirling small pots of pungent incense, warding off evil spirits, and trying to collect small change. They can be found sleeping in doorways or in the rubble of destroyed buildings. It is estimated that 70,000 children live on the streets of Kabul.


I can’t stop thinking of the children sitting in the dirt of a refugee camp or running down the path pushing old bicycle tires or sitting next to overflowing sacks of collected detritus.


In Afghanistan, one in five children dies before their fifth birthday (41 percent of deaths occur in the first month of life). For the children who make it past the first month, many perish due to preventable and highly treatable conditions including diarrhea and pneumonia. Malnourishment affects 39 percent of the children compared to 25 percent at the start of the U.S. invasion; 52 percent don’t have access to clean water; and 94 percent of births are not registered. The children are afforded very little legal protection, especially girls, who are banned from schools in many regions, used as collateral to settle debts, and are married through arranged marriages as young as ten years old.


Though not currently an issue, HIV/AIDS looms as a catastrophic possibility as drug addiction increases significantly, even among women and children. Only 16 percent of women use modern contraception and children on the streets are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The “State of the World’s Mothers” report, issued in May 2011 by Save the Children, ranked Afghanistan last, but Somalia worse.


Not a single public hospital has been built since the invasion. It is not an impos-sibility, it is a matter of will. Emergency, an Italian NGO, runs 3 hospitals and 30 clinics throughout Afghanistan on a budget of $7 million per year. This is NATO’s International Security Assistance Force monthly budget for air conditioning.


Mothers of at-risk children are not faring any better: most are illiterate and chronically malnourished. A woman’s life expectancy is barely 45 years of age. One woman in 11 dies in pregnancy or childbirth, compared to 1 in 2,100 in the U.S. (the highest of any industrialized nation). In Italy and Ireland, the risk of maternal death is less than 1 in 15,000 and in Greece it’s 1 in 31,800. Skilled health professionals attend only 14 percent of childbirths.


Women are still viewed as property. A law passed by the Karzai regime legalizes marital rape and requires a woman to get the permission of her husband to leave the house. Domestic violence is a chronic problem. A women who runs away from home (even if escaping violence) is imprisoned. Upon completion of her sentence, she is returned to her husband. Self-immolation is still common as desperate women try to get out of impossible situations.


Shortly after the U.S. invasion, Laura Bush said, “The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.” President Bush said, “Our coalition has liberated Afghanistan and restored fundamental human rights and freedoms to Afghan women and all the people of Afghanistan.” Actually, the former warlords responsible for the destruction, pillage, and rape of Afghanistan were ushered back into power by the United States. In 2007, these very same warlords, now Parliamentarians, passed a bill that granted amnesty for any killings during the civil war. A local journalist said, “The killers are the ones holding the pens, writing the laws and continuing their crimes.”


When Malalai Joya addressed the Peace Loya Jirga convened in December 2003, she asked, “Why are we allowing criminals to be present here?” She was thrown out of the assembly. Undeterred, she ran for Parliament, winning in a landslide. She began her maiden speech by saying, “My condolences to the people of Afghanistan….” As she continued speaking, the warlord sitting behind her threatened to rape and kill her. The MP’s voted her out of Parliament and Karzai upheld her ouster. Now in hiding, she continues to champion women’s rights. She has stated that the only people who can liberate Afghan women are the women themselves.


In America, women and children are also faring badly. In the “State of the World’s Mothers” report, America has dropped from 11th in 2003 to 31st of the developed countries today. The U.S. currently ranks behind Estonia, Croatia, and Slovakia. It fell farther in regards to children, going from the 4th ranked country to the 34th. An estimated 1 child in 5 is living in poverty. More than 20 million children rely on school lunch programs to keep from going hungry. The number of people living in poverty in America has grown by 2.6 million in the last 12 months.


Looking only at numbers, it is easy to avoid the truth of the enormous amount of human suffering they envelop. Drive through the streets of any American city and these statistics come alive in the swollen ranks of the homeless. Drive through the streets of Kabul and these statistics come alive in the forms of hungry children begging for change.


The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is still a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control. When will our politicians hear the desperate cry of the street children of Afghanistan, who, with all the incense in the world, simply can’t ward off the evil of our occupation? 


Johnny Barber has traveled to Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon to bear witness and document the suffering of people affected by war. To support Voices for Creative Non-Violence go to www.vcnv. org.