Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Covid-19 in Afghanistan (5): Snapshots of women’s living under coronavirus in and around Herat city

S Reza Kazemi 19 min

In Herat, Afghanistan’s second most-infected province, women have been disproportionately hit by the secondary effects of Covid-19. AAN researcher Reza Kazemi has been hearing from women in the province about extra care and housework, increased levels of domestic violence, greater restrictions on movement and their concerns about their children, given school closures. He also finds women adapting, contributing in critical ways to the society and gradually trying to change life for the better.

Herati children on a se-charkh (three wheeler) cargo rickshaw. Photo: author.

This report is based on in-depth interviews conducted by Fatema Sadat, Sohaila Hosseini (two recent university graduates) and the author with a sample of seven women in and around Herat city in June 2020 (details on methodology and interviewee profiles can be found in footnote 1). The study is not intended to be representative of Covid-19-related experiences of women in Herat city, let alone Herat province or Afghanistan. Rather, it is a qualitative study that explores the experiences of seven women – a housewife, a telecommunications company employee, a frontline health worker, two university students, an employee of the provincial education directorate and a private school teacher. These were backed up by interviews with a female civil society activist and a female psychosocial counsellor of their experiences working in the community at this time and by secondary literature where it exists.

Two earlier reports by the author examined local responses to the coronavirus in Herat: the first looked at the provincial capital’s partial lockdown in March 2020; the second investigated the politics and economics of aid distribution in a village in the south of the city in May 2020.

This report takes an inside-outside approach to the themes which emerged from the interviews with the seven Herati women. It first zooms in on interviewees’ concerns inside the home, including children’s education, housework and domestic violence. It then pans out to their concerns about the world outside, including employment and uncertainty over the future. This inside/outside division is only for analytical purposes; in reality, the two aspects are inseparable and crosscut in many different ways.

From inside the house…

Concerns about children’s education

In Herat, as everywhere else, government and private schools have not opened since the winter break, ie they have been closed for about four months since 21 March 2020. Taking the winter break into account, schools have now been shut for a continuous period of over seven months. In order to keep preventing the spread of the coronavirus, the government has ordered schools and other educational institutions to stay shut until at least 15 Asad 1399/5 August 2020. By the time of writing, the closure of educational institutions was the only still active remnant of the coronavirus-induced lockdown in Herat. Worries about the education of children were often the first thing mentioned for the women we spoke to, especially those with school-aged children.

A woman with three boys at school described school closures as “a very unpleasant change in my life.” She worried that her children were lagging behind in their studies. In addition, she has just started working as a part-time frontline health worker and had to find a babysitter to look after her children in the morning when she was out working. Another woman with two boys already at school and a girl who had been about to start said: “The virus changed the life of the world’s people and the first change for me was that my children didn’t go to school in the spring [at the start of the school year].”  She was particularly concerned about her daughter who “needs to study and have a future in which she will be able to stand on her own feet and become a successful woman in society.”

Some women have found ways to adapt, however. Among the women we interviewed, some have been schooling their children at home, including through quite regular contacts with their teachers. They have experienced home schooling in different ways, but everyone found it time-intensive, difficult and incomparable with school-based education:

In addition to doing the housework and my job, I must help my kids with their lessons like a teacher… Together, we watch their lessons on the computer. Then, I practice dictation with them and other homework they have. I also take photos of their dictation and other homework and send the photos to their teachers [by phone]… But it’s not like school. At school, there’s order and competition. Children can study at home, but with great difficulty.

– Frontline health worker

In normal times, I’d help my kids with their lessons in the morning and they’d go to school after eating lunch. Now, I have to sit down with them for longer and make sure they study on the computer or with pencil and paper. I need to work with them, so they get used to learning in this way, which is a new thing for them – and for me.

– Housewife

School is different. There, everything is ready for putting children in some order. At home, I’ve dedicated one room to my school-going son and provided him with a laptop. I go to his school and get his lessons in a flash drive once a week. The school itself prepares video lessons. I bring the flash drive back and play his video lessons on the laptop and sit down with him, but he doesn’t study at home as he does at school.  

– Private school teacher whose work has been halted by the school shutdown

Education, including home schooling, diminishes as one goes away from the provincial centre. In a TV show looking specifically at education in the time of the coronavirus, Zekria Rahimi, head of Herat’s provincial education directorate, claimed his directorate was reaching 75 per cent of the province’s pupils, which he put at one million in number, through remote education. He said this was being done through local TV and radio channels, both public and private, as well as the internet. Even if Rahimi’s claim of outreach is correct, this would still mean a quarter of all pupils are being left out. However, his claim is questionable. The number of pupils in the province is unknown. How many in the province – or even how many in Herat city and its immediate vicinity – have access to TV, radio and the internet – and the electricity that powers them – is also unknown. Even for those schoolchildren who do have access to these tools, it is questionable how many are actually following remote education and how effective it is in an already generally low-quality and poorly functioning education service. (2)

One picture from the ground was given by a student at the also closed Herat University who lives in a village in Guzara district, some 15 kilometres to the south of the provincial centre. She described her observations of pupils there:

There are few families that can and do give attention to the education of their children. Many parents are illiterate, so they can’t help with their children’s studies. I see many children who don’t study. Instead, they play games on the phone or watch movies on TV or play outside in the alleys. When there were schools, they had to go and study there. As to the internet, many families in our area don’t have access to it. It’s very difficult to make children sit down and study here. These children are losing one year of education. At university, we’re also losing one [academic] year.

More broadly, the coronavirus pandemic has made an already bad school education in Afghanistan worse. According to Human Rights Watch reporting, the number of pupils had already been falling because of the war. Now, there are fresh alerts about worsening poverty and hunger caused by the pandemic. The World Bank has projected a decline in economic growth and incomes, a rise in inflation and an alarming poverty rate of up to 72 per cent in Afghanistan this year (up from the current 54.5 per cent), meaning those living in poverty could more than double since 2007-08 (see figure 1 based on Afghanistan: Time-Series Dashboard). (3) The charity Oxfam has put Afghanistan among the “ten extreme hunger hotspots,” meaning over one-third of the population (some 11.3 million people) are food-insecure and about 41 per cent of children are undernourished and therefore stunted. Coronavirus-related poverty and hunger, adding to the disruptions caused by the conflict, has meant the outlook for many children’s education looks very grim. Save the Children, a non-profit organisation, regards Afghanistan as among 12 countries in the world that are “at extreme risk of increased school dropouts and widening learning inequalities.” Those families hit by economic hardship because of coronavirus may have to send children, especially boys, out to work, according to the International Labour Organisation. The UN warned that for girls, the risk is of being married off when they are very young, including to grooms that families would not consider in normal circumstances – those who are much older or already have a wife or wives. Marrying off girls reduces the number of mouths to feed and may bring in income in the form of bride prices. Those forced to drop out of school typically find their chance of social mobility that comes through education dashed (see this article from The Economist). Any reversal of children’s, in particular girls’, education resulting from coronavirus would also reveal the easy fragility of the much-hyped gains of the last two decades.

Figure 1: In 2020, Afghanistan’s poverty rate could more than double since 2007. Source: the author’s illustration of Afghanistan: Time-Series Dashboard data that are based on NRVA 2007-08, NRVA 2011-12, ALCS 2013-14 and ALCS 2016-17 by Afghanistan’s National Statistics and Information Authority, formerly known as Central Statistics Organisation.

Increased house and care work

Children staying at home are one reason why many women have been shouldering increased domestic burden during the coronavirus outbreak. It is not just about taking more time and responsibility to attend to children’s home schooling, as discussed above. Some of our interviewees, particularly those with children, described how their children made a mess of the house and how parents, especially mothers, were concerned about keeping them safe, sound and at home:

Children are at home. They mess up everything. They make a noise and keep nagging about this or that. We can’t take them out because of corona. They fall out among themselves about this or that. It’s because they’re at home, have no specific entertainment and feel down.

– Housewife

I keep telling my kids to wash their hands with soap. When we go out and come back home, we wash or sanitise our hands. We also often change and wash our clothes… When they go out to buy things, I get into trouble with them because they don’t listen to me about wearing gloves and masks when outside.

– Frontline health worker

In our area, families don’t want their kids to go out and spend lots of time with all kinds of children in the alleys. Now, they’re afraid of them getting infected with the virus. So some have been beating or punishing their children to stay home and not go and spend much time in the alleys.

– University student

Overall, women’s domestic work has gone up. In remarks representative of the people AAN spoke to, a woman who normally works full-time in a telecommunications company, but was forced to stay home for a month due to lockdown measures in Herat city said:

In the quarantine days, there was really lots of housework to do. Cooking food, washing dishes, washing clothes, and cleaning and disinfecting the house and everything that was brought from outside was so much that I never imagined I could do so much work at home every day. As a woman who works outside [the house], I was telling myself, ‘Well done to all the housewives who work so hard every day!’ There were really lots of things to do during the one month I had to stay home. Fortunately, I resumed working afterwards.

A housewife described how she was struck, at least initially, by anxiety about health and an obsession with hygiene:

In the beginning, we had lots of stress and anxiety in our house. I was worried about the virus entering from the door, from the wall, from the food we eat and infecting me and my family, especially the kids. We were afraid of falling ill… Now, I’ve decreased washing and sanitising. I’ve given up disinfecting door handles, staircases and kitchen sink. But I still very much wash vegetables and other things we buy from the market.

This concurs with findings from other research. The Afghanistan Time Use Survey conducted by UN Women Afghanistan and a partner organisation in seven provinces, including Herat, in early 2019 found that Afghan women were doing over three times as much unpaid house and care work as Afghan men (see figure 2). (4) The coronavirus pandemic is reported to have exacerbated these gender imbalances by increasing Afghan women’s house and care work even further (see UN Women Afghanistan’s gender alert issue 4). (5) The UN body has, among other things, called for quantifying and recognising women’s house and care work that is not only unpaid, but also “invisibilised,” as they put it. Similar findings have been reached globally, as in this Human Rights Watch report.

Figure 2: Time reported spent on unpaid house and care work in Afghanistan. Total cumulative: women 18.7 hours, men 5.6 hours (note that some activities happen at the same time). Source: Afghanistan Time Use Survey by UN Women Afghanistan and a partner organisation (details in footnote 4).

This brings us to caring for family members who have become infected with the coronavirus (see figure 3 for current confirmed Covid-19 cases in Herat province as reported by the provincial public health directorate). Every interviewee said they had family members, relatives or acquaintances that had become sick, hinting at the widespread spread of the disease at least in and around Herat city. However, they said all had recovered or were recovering. Some of the interviewees had also noticed a spike in deaths generally, particularly among the elderly, and suspected this was to do with the coronavirus. These indications could show that the province’s Covid-19 infections and deaths are much higher than what has been officially reported. Our interviewees reported that caring for the sick fell disproportionately on women. In some cases though, some men did become responsible for caring for close female relations, primarily wives. It was felt that a woman’s illness was far more difficult for a household to bear than a man’s, as the following quote illustrates:

In our society, women take care of the house and the health of children and other family members like the elderly. So when the woman falls ill, it disrupts the whole house. I myself became sick with corona and it was my husband who took care of me… Although he became known among our relatives as being patient and kind and doing household chores from babysitting to cooking and washing, our house became a mess, children became very untidy and it took me a lot of time to recover. Our men haven’t learned to run a house and care for the sick.

Figure 3: Covid-19 infections, recoveries (gender breakdown unavailable) and deaths in Herat province by 21 July 2020. It is widely believed that the actual numbers are much higher. Source: the author’s illustration of data by Herat provincial public health directorate.

Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has hampered women’s access to health care (see the UN Women Afghanistan’s gender alert issue 9). Some of our interviewees said women – and men – they knew had refrained from seeking health care, especially in the public sector, for fear of getting infected due to lack of hygiene in the facilities (see also this report by The New Humanitarian about women as “Afghanistan’s missing coronavirus patients” including in Herat). The same interviewees said some pregnant women they knew among their relatives had avoided approaching the government-run Herat Maternity Hospital; instead, their families had arranged to have deliveries at private health facilities, which they believed were cleaner and less crowded and therefore less of a risk. Some couples, they said, were planning not to have children until the whole situation got a bit clearer. (6)

As with education, the further one moves away from the provincial centre, the greater health care diminishes, so rural women’s access to health care is likely to be even worse. The UN Women Afghanistan’s gender alert issue 9 says:

Women and girls already had limited access to critical health care, including maternal and child health care, particularly in rural areas where 75% of the population live. Afghanistan is one of the countries where mortality rates among mothers and children are among the highest in the world… Afghanistan is facing a massive shortage in female health care staff. This is critically limiting women and girls’ access to health care. In Afghanistan, only 15% of nurses and 2% of medical doctors are women.

People walking in the courtyard of the Herat Regional Hospital. Photo: Fatema Sadat 

Rise in domestic violence

This was the most distressing impact of the coronavirus-caused lockdown mentioned by interviewees. Nearly all shared the view that domestic violence against women and girls has increased in the time of Covid-19 (see also this report by The Guardian). They did not state this in relation to themselves, although it could be the case that they wished not to speak about personal experiences, instead framing their responses around the experiences of “other women we know in our families and neighbourhoods,” as one put it. Only one interviewee disagreed with this consensus opinion: “No, thank God, there’s been no such incident [domestic violence] in our quarters. I haven’t even heard about it. Inshallah, I won’t hear about such things in the future, either.”

The other six interviewees who reported a rise in domestic violence spoke about the added stress caused by financial worries and homes overcrowded with children off school and men unexpectedly unemployed:

There’s been more violence in homes. I can give the example of some of our relatives. Because most men have become jobless and have nothing to do [outside], they complain about anything at home. There’s also been more stress because of corona. So there are more arguments between husbands and wives, leading to violence.

– Frontline health worker

I know several families, the husbands and wives didn’t have good relations before [Covid-19]. Now, their men have become unemployed and are at home most of the time. They’re worried about their work, with losses every passing day. They’ve clashed with their wives or their wives have clashed with them. Some women have also been beaten. Some of them even asked me over the phone what they should do in these conditions. So there’s certainly been more domestic violence.

– Private school teacher

Verbal, mental and even physical violence has surged during the lockdown… I’ve seen this among my relatives who have been beaten physically and harassed mentally. Domestic violence has really gone up during the lockdown.

– Employee of a telecommunications company

In a conversation with AAN, a civil society activist who works with women in three villages in the nearby district of Enjil estimated that domestic violence there had almost doubled: “Previously I personally registered and worked on four, five domestic violence cases per month, but it’s now eight, nine cases, and they’re mostly about the battering of women and girls.” A psychosocial counsellor interviewed by AAN also said she had experienced a comparable increase in the number of women approaching her with domestic violence problems.

On a nationwide basis, a similar trend also appears to have been emerging. For instance, 97 per cent of female respondents in a recent Oxfam survey conducted in five provinces, including in Herat, said gender-based violence had increased since the coronavirus hit the country. The same response was reported by 55 per cent of male and female respondents in another recent survey carried out by German aid organisation Johanniter International Assistance and partner organisations in the three provinces of Kabul, Kunduz and Khost. (7) Given the endemic of gender-based violence already and with health and other protection services damaged by Covid-19, UN Women Afghanistan has regarded the emerging trend as “particularly concerning.” It also fits the global pattern of an alarming rise in gender-based violence “[from] China to Italy, Brazil to Lebanon,” according to the just-quoted gender alert issue by the UN entity.

Street children in a central area of Herat city called gerde-ye park (Park Circle). They collect things like used water bottles to sell, beg and polish shoes for a little money. Photo: author.

… To the world outside the house

Decreased employment

Among the women we spoke to in and around the city of Herat, all but one normally worked outside the house. The work of most of them had been halted or prevented by the coronavirus outbreak. University students and private school teachers had been affected the most. With educational institutions closed for months, they have had to stay at home throughout the day, losing studies, incomes and potential job opportunities. Although male university students and private school teachers have also faced these losses, they have not been as restricted to the house as their female peers have been. The work of one interviewee (a telecommunications company employee) had stopped for only about a month, as referred to above. Although the work of another (psychosocial counsellor) continued non-stop and a third even began working as a frontline health worker in Herat city in the middle of the outbreak, they had to bear other consequences, including increasing their own risk of catching Covid-19. For fear of passing on the infection, these working women had also severed physical contact with their dear ones, such as parents. These variations in women’s experience of working or not working during the coronavirus epidemic are captured by the following quotes:

Before corona I had a regular daily programme. In the morning, I attended an English language course. Then I went to the university. And in the afternoon I worked in a health clinic. I was busy throughout the day. But now I’m at home throughout the day… I lost two good job chances due to corona. A place [health centre] needed a woman doctor [and was offering] a good monthly salary. I didn’t apply because I was afraid of getting infected and then passing the infection on to my old mother at home. I could also have got work as an intern or a paid employee in a hospital. I didn’t apply there, either.

– University student in the last year of her studies

I myself have some savings from my previous jobs. I take out money from my [bank] account whenever I need to. I wish I had worked more and saved more, so I could get the things I want in life. But some of the school teachers I’m in contact with have no savings at all. They depended on their school pay even for their transport costs. They have no support, not even from their husbands’ side. They’ve encountered a lot of problems because they’ve had no income for the past several months during which schools have been closed. They’ve even suffered mentally. Private schools haven’t paid [their employees during coronavirus-induced closures], in contrast to the public schools [that have paid].

– Private school teacher

I had to continue working in my NGO job. I also need to support myself and my two siblings who depend on me and stay with me in Herat city. Besides, there was more demand for people in my profession to increase public awareness and provide counselling for those in need. So I’ve worked with no pause. Fortunately I’ve not become infected.

– Psychosocial counsellor

I found a part-time job in the maternity hospital. I’ve been doing this job for about a month’s time. Because of my work, I’ve stopped seeing my relatives, including my parents. I don’t want to transmit the virus to them.

– Frontline health worker

In response, some of our interviewees, particularly university students and school teachers, have found ways to adapt. For instance, some university students said they continued studying at home and followed up on their studies by contacting their peers or teachers by phone or internet. A private school teacher also described how she created a Facebook page to stay in touch with people including the parents of her pupils. However, these adaptive behaviours were generally limited, not just to these categories of interviewees, but also geographically to some areas in the city proper.

Uncertain future

Finally, our interviewees shared their thoughts about the future. Overall, they shared the view that the coronavirus would pass sooner than later and that life would return to a normality in which they would continue to improve their conditions of life. At the same time, there was widespread ambivalence about the future and it was here that concerns other than the coronavirus emerged, in particular the unending war and its toll on all Afghans (see also this previous AAN report and the relevant UN Women Afghanistan’s gender alert issue 3 and issue 6). We encountered far more uncertainty than confidence about what the future holds for Afghan women. One interviewee summed up this ambivalent viewpoint:

I really don’t know if I have hope in the future or not… Little looks promising, given the war and this disease [Covid-19]. I think more about my children than myself. If we are safe from this disease, what about the war? If the war ends in Afghanistan, what about the disease? Where’s our life going? … At other times, when I realise that little is in my hands, I think life will go on as it has during the past, whether good or bad. So I find faith in the future and leave myself and all my family members to God’s protection.

Conclusion

This qualitative survey of snapshots of women’s living under coronavirus in and around Herat city tells us a couple of things. First, it shows how Covid-19 and the partial lockdown in Herat exacerbated whatever difficulties women already faced in their lives. Their already high domestic burden increased even further: many became responsible for children’s home schooling, on top of normal child care, and there was even more work to do at home because of everyone being at home, concerns about hygiene and caring for family members who fell ill from the coronavirus. An even worse consequence for some women has been greater exposure to domestic violence. Additionally, women working outside the house, especially teachers in private schools and university students, have been hurt hard by lost work or work opportunities.

Second, this study indirectly reminds us of the crucial, albeit generally unrecognised, roles that Afghan women play inside the house and in the world outside. Times are hard and the ongoing epidemic and the unending war in Afghanistan are casting huge uncertainty over the lives of all Afghans. Yet, the author was impressed by how the women we interviewed were finding ways to subtly adapt and try to gradually change life for the better. Some had found ways to provide schooling for their children at home or had modified their housework because of the epidemic and its perceived reduction. Others were providing vital help to those in need and continuing to work despite putting themselves at greater risk from Covid-19.

Edited by Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig

(1) We developed the sample based on the women we knew more or less, so there was already rapport to explore their experiences of living under coronavirus in some depth. We asked the women about their lives pre- and post-Covid-19 by focusing on the challenges, if any, they encountered at home, at work and in the broader community. The sample included seven women: one housewife, one telecommunications company employee, one frontline health worker, two university students, one Herat provincial education directorate employee and one private school teacher (see table 1 below). Four were married and with children, and three were single. Their reported ages ranged between 22 and 30. Moreover, five lived in Herat city proper and two in a village in Guzara district, approximately 15 kilometres to the south of the city. Interviews were also conducted with a female civil society activist and a female psychosocial counsellor, both with current working experience in Enjil (activist) and Ghoryan and Kushk (counsellor) districts of Herat province. Because of concerns about Covid-19 transmission, all interviews, except one (with the female civil society activist), were carried out by phone.

Table 1: Interviewee profiles. All charts/tables by the author.

(2) A recent Save the Children report says that only 28.6 per cent of children have access to remote education through TV, 13.8 per cent through radio and 0.2 per cent through the internet across six provinces that the report does not mention.

(3) In Afghanistan, the poverty line refers to “the national average threshold for the cost of covering basic needs.” It was Afs 2,064 per month/Afs 68.9 per day per person in 2016-17 – 0.87 US dollars a day (for details, see the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey 2016-17). This ‘national’ poverty line is lower than the one used internationally, for comparability. If the internationally applied poverty line (of USD 1.90 per day) would be used, the percentage of Afghans currently under it would rise from 54.5 to around 80 per cent (see more here, p9).

(4) The Afghanistan Time Use Survey explains the survey and its methodology as follows:

A Time Use Survey measures the average number of hours per day people spend on certain activities and quantifies the contribution of unpaid work of both men and women.

UN Women partnered with Afghans for Afghanistan’s Development (AFAD) Organization to undertake the Afghanistan Time Use Survey. The research was conducted in Nangrahar, Kabul, Takhar, Balkh, Herat, Kandahar, and Paktia provinces. This is the first Time Use Survey conducted in Afghanistan. The objective of the survey was to measure the amount of average time men and women spend on various activities within a 24-hour timeframe. The data was collected through a questionnaire and a diary, to calculate the amount of time spent on a range of activities. Data was collected during the first quarter of 2019, during winter/spring. 4,400 respondents were surveyed, all over 18 years of age.

The distribution of survey respondents by urban and rural areas was roughly equal. The survey included more women respondents, 62%, than men, 38%. The higher number of women respondents helped ensure information on women’s time-use patterns was sufficient. The percentage of married respondents was 66%, unmarried at 31%, and others (widow or separated), 3%. The percentage of respondents with some level of education was 62% and with no formal education 38%.

(5) UN Women Afghanistan has issued a series of gender alerts on Covid-19 in the country. The series “highlights the disproportionate gender specific impacts of COVID-19 in Afghanistan, from the lack of services for survivors of violence to the challenges of building peace during a health crisis and a fast-paced rise in the burden of unpaid care work.” All publications in this series are available here. For a global perspective on the impact of Covid-19 on women, see this UN policy brief.

(6) On 6 July 2020, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health said pregnant women were more susceptible to being infected with the coronavirus than non-pregnant women. It also advised couples not to plan pregnancies until a vaccine arrives “probably within one, two years.”

(7) In late June 2020, Sina Shena Mansur, the Afghan deputy attorney-general for the elimination of violence against women, said of all 1,173 cases of violence against women recorded during the last six months around the country, 249 pertained to the beating of women during the lockdown. Herat was second only to the capital Kabul, according to this data. This could only indicate the tip of the ‘iceberg’ as many domestic violence cases go unreported across the country.

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Education poverty women Herat unemployment coronavirus Covid-19 domestic violence

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