Humanitarian Crisis And Neglect In Afghanistan Puts People With Disabilities At Risk

The Taliban’s continued restrictions on human rights, lack of effective governance, and the ensuing economic collapse are threatening the human rights and wellbeing of people with disabilities in Afghanistan.

This comes after the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country last year, culminating in the capture of the capital, Kabul. The Taliban has since carried out human rights abuses against minority groups, journalists, human rights activists, and anyone connected to the former government, and has also restricted the human rights of women and girls. These restrictions include removing women from the workplace and banning girls from attending school.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis threatens the country’s most vulnerable. Amnesty International reports that the suspension of foreign aid and the freezing of Afghan government assets has caused food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger for approximately 20 million Afghans (out of an estimated population of 40 million). The onset of winter has only exacerbated these problems. While all Afghans are currently facing hardship, it is the country’s most neglected and vulnerable who will bear the brunt of the drought, famine, economic crisis, and human rights abuses.

Disabled Afghans are arguably the country’s most vulnerable cohort and suffer from ongoing neglect, stigmatization and discrimination. Disabled people are often excluded from participation in education and social life, and disabled women and children suffer from exploitation, violence, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of disability in the world, with Human Rights Watch reporting that at least one in five households has member with a serious disability. The Asia Foundation’s 2020 study found that 80% of adults live with some form of disability (24.6% mild, 40.4% moderate and 13.9% severe), as do 17.3% of children aged between 2 and 17. Severe disabilities are more prevalent amongst females, leaving women and girls more vulnerable. Over 40 years of continuous conflict has also meant that approximately 1 million Afghans have amputated limbs or other mobility, visual, or hearing disabilities, and many Afghans also suffer from mental health conditions.

The former government, in partnership with the international community, made significant strides in advancing disability rights through legislation, programs, and policies to improve employment, health, education, social and accessibility outcomes for people with disabilities. This included protecting disabled people’s rights in Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution and the 2010 Law on Rights and Privileges of People with Disabilities. The government also planned and carried out ambitious policies through the Afghanistan National Disability Action Plan 2008-11 and the National Strategic Plan for Disability Prevention and Physical Rehabilitation of 2017-20. These policies included strategies to improve the country’s medical care, physical rehabilitation, economic reintegration, and inclusive education.

Afghanistan also signed and ratified multiple international conventions regarding disability rights, including the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction in 2002 and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012. These were important steps in showing that both the Karzai and Ghani governments took disabled rights and wellbeing seriously.

The re-emergence of the Taliban and the withdrawal of foreign aid, upon which the country is extremely reliant, have reduced both the funds to implement these programs and international commitments and the Afghan leadership’s interest in carrying them out. Thus, these vital policies, including opportunities in employment and education and programs to improve healthcare, accessibly, and inclusion, have been virtually abandoned. For example, the international community froze the funds of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, whose Rural Access Project completes road rehabilitation projects to help disabled students travel to school. The freeze in funding and policy inaction by the Taliban has seen projects like this cease, leaving people with disabilities neglected and unable to participate in society. This neglect represents a huge step back in disability rights, as well as disabled people’s dignity.

There are also fears that the Taliban is not only neglecting but actively discriminating against the disabled. “There are millions of people with disabilities there without any support, without food, without clothes, without education, without any basic human rights,” says Benafsha Yaqoobi, a prominent blind activist at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We must raise their voices.” Yaqoobi says the Taliban believes that disability is God’s way of punishing parents’ sins, leading them to discriminate against people with disabilities.

In positive news, international donors approved the transfer of $280 million from the frozen Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to the World Food Programme and to UNICEF in order to help Afghanistan deal with the crisis. The United Nations also recently launched a funding appeal for more than $5 billion for Afghanistan in 2022, the largest-ever request for a single country. The United States Agency for International Development has since announced a contribution of $308 million in response. These funds will provide direct humanitarian assistance for millions of Afghans and pay healthcare workers and other public servants for their services. The United States has also taken steps to allow humanitarian groups to send aid without violating economic sanctions.

However, more funds are needed (and quickly!) to protect Afghanistan’s disabled community and they must be provided in an organized and structured manner. Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis must be addressed to ensure that people with disabilities have access to food and drinking water, and can enjoy their full human rights under the constitution, without suffering from discrimination or neglect. This presents an opportunity for the international community to provide assistance.

The first way the international community can help is to ensure that humanitarian aid helps vulnerable people directly and achieves rapid results. Channelling funds through United Nations bodies is a direct and appropriate way to provide this vital assistance, as was demonstrated when the United Nations Security Council exempted humanitarian assistance for basic human needs from sanctions in Afghanistan late last year. This allowed aid to be delivered despite international sanctions on Afghanistan. Channelling funds this way will allow humanitarians to feed and clothe Afghan society’s most vulnerable without getting tangled in political restrictions.

The second way for the international community to help Afghanistan is to tie human rights obligations to any unfrozen funds sent directly to the Taliban, including obligations to protect and provide services for disabled people as per their rights. This will help ensure that the Taliban respects the human rights of people with disabilities and will enable international organizations to re-start vital programs so these people can be safe, fed, and effective participants in society.

These responses present a peaceful solution that will pressure the Taliban to respect the human rights of the country’s most vulnerable. When vital resources are provided, people with disabilities can avoid neglect, discrimination, and suffering from ongoing famine, drought, and economic collapse.

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