The Australian Global Health Alliance holds grave concerns for the health and wellbeing of all Afghan people in light of recent events, particularly for the health, safety and rights of women and girls.
Despite long-term conflict, there has been significant progress made to improve the health status and outcomes particularly for women and girls in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. The support of the international community, including the Australian Government, has been instrumental in helping to build a strengthened health care system, which has led to a significant decline in maternal, under-5and neonatal mortality rates, and an increase in the number of births attended to by a skilled professional as well as women’s access to family planning services and contraception.
Afghan women continue to play one of the most critical roles in the country’s overall improved health status. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2008, and since then have made important gains in implementation. With greater access to education and employment, women hold positions as doctors, nurses, midwives and community health care workers; in 2016, women made up approximately 47% of the health workforce. They have been the linchpin on the ground for the country’s polio eradication efforts, and more recently, have played a pivotal role in programs to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Women’s expertise and commitment has been vital in improving the overall health outcomes of all Afghans, and their participation is necessary to maintaining an effective health care system.
A humanitarian disaster is already unfolding, with tens of thousands of newly-displaced people already estimated to be seeking safety in neighbouring countries. The increased movement of people will aid the spread of COVID-19 and other life-threatening infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and polio. According to UNHCR, people are being forced to flee without documentation, leaving them vulnerable to risks of exploitation, gender-based violence, forced marriage and sexual exploitation.
Moreover, the food, shelter and basic health and human needs of millions of refugees will place an enormous stain on the infrastructure and resources of countries who welcome them. It will be crucial to ensure that much-needed supplies can reach those within Afghanistan and in settlements established in neighbouring countries. Without appropriate international support and assistance, this increased burden risks the stability of the entire region.
As a signatory to the UN Responsibility to Protect principle, Australia has a responsibility to protect and fight for the health and human rights of the people of Afghanistan. We urge the Australian Government to take the following immediate, targeted actions:
- Immediately ensure unfettered medical humanitarian relief access to populations inside Afghanistan and in neighbouring and destination countries where they flee to;
- Advocate for women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan, as ratified in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to be upheld, including:
- For women to continue to be able to access equal education, employment and healthcare services (in particular, maternal health services)
- Being able to remain actively employed as health care workers, and to be able to deliver health services in Afghanistan in safety, with dignity and protected from harassment.
- For women to be able to participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof, and to participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.
- Increase foreign aid contributions to agencies supporting the global health, international development and humanitarian effort within Afghanistan and neighbouring countries
- Act on the calls made from the Refugee Council regarding urgent evacuations of people at grave risk, offering additional refugee settlement places within Australia and extending and approving temporary and permanent protection visas for Afghan citizens in Australia, and their families.