In Afghanistan, obtaining accurate data on the number of persons with disabilities — including gender-disaggregated information — has always been a challenging endeavor. But based on the data we do have, it’s clear that more than four decades of violent conflict have left a considerable portion of the Afghan population grappling with various forms of disabilities, both war-related and otherwise. And the pervasive lack of protective mechanisms, social awareness and empathy surrounding disability continue to pose formidable challenges for individuals with disabilities, with women being disproportionately affected.

Mirza Hussain Haidari uses a wheelchair-accessible entrance at his home in Bamian, Afghanistan, November 19, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Mirza Hussain Haidari uses a wheelchair-accessible entrance at his home in Bamian, Afghanistan, November 19, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

For years, the prolonged insecurity caused by the Taliban’s insurgency hindered a thorough understanding of the challenges faced by disabled Afghans. And now that the Taliban have returned to power, there are even fewer opportunities to gather accurate assessments regarding disability in the country, particularly regarding women with disabilities.

Attempts to Account for Disabled Individuals in Afghanistan

This hasn’t stopped many from trying, with varying levels of success. In one report released by the Afghan government in 2018, the estimated number of Afghans with disabilities was cited at 1.2 million, with 41 percent being women. However, approximately half of the country’s population resided in areas controlled or disputed by the Taliban at the time, so conducting surveys in those regions was impractical and therefore not pursued.

Meanwhile, the Asia Foundation’s 2019 Model Disability Survey reported that a staggering four-in-five Afghan adults and one-in-five children had a physical, sensory, intellectual or psychosocial disability. And citing a 2005 government report, Human Rights Watch noted that roughly one-in-five Afghan households (equivalent to 1.2 million households) included a family member with a severe disability, while two-in-five households had some form of disability.

The Recent History of Disability in Afghanistan

Despite enormous shortcomings and challenges during the Afghan Republic, initial strides were made toward advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in Afghanistan — including constitutional articles that prohibited discrimination and allowed for the provision of financial aid to disabled people.

The enactment of the National Law of Rights and Benefits of Persons with Disabilities in 2010 marked a pivotal moment, opening doors for their participation in social, political and economic spheres. Furthermore, the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, along with its Optional Protocol in 2012, underscored the country's commitment to recognizing the rights of disabled persons.

However, during the Republic era, there was a distinction made between individuals who acquired disabilities due to war injuries and those who were born with disabilities or developed them unrelated to war. Those with war-related disabilities were entitled to social assistance, while those with non-war-related disabilities often faced marginalization.

Additionally, any support earmarked for the latter group was irregular and heavily reliant on personal connections within the government ministry responsible for distributing disability aid. This led to even more discrepancies and discrimination, as many disabled women in west Afghanistan with non-war-related disabilities were denied government assistance while others with similar disabilities in some northern provinces received consistent social support from the ministry.

Since taking control in 2021, the Taliban have introduced measures aimed at monitoring the distribution of financial aid to disabled individuals irrespective of the origin of their disabilities. While this might seem as though the Taliban have expanded the scope of support for disabled individuals, in truth, the Taliban have simply swapped one bias for another: Resource allocation under the Taliban heavily favors disabled Taliban members above all others.

The Taliban have adjusted the total amount for welfare payments. Currently, a disabled Taliban member receives between 60,000 Afghanis ($820) and 180,000 Afghanis ($2,460) annually. Meanwhile, a non-Taliban disabled person who sustained war-related injuries during the Afghan Republic era is paid between 36,000 Afghanis ($490) to 96,000 Afghanis ($1,315) — roughly 53 to 60 percent less than their Taliban-affiliated counterparts. 

These changes fail to sufficiently address the needs of non-Taliban disabled individuals. And while payments are promptly disbursed to disabled Taliban members, the same cannot be said for others.

The Disproportionate Challenges Facing Disabled Afghan Women

Disabled women face particularly egregious discrimination, isolation, insult and humiliation within Afghan society, enduring unfair blame for supposedly bringing shame to their families solely due to their disabilities. This has led to increased anxiety and depression, as every day, disabled Afghan women must grapple with stigma, discrimination and exclusion, leading to a compromised sense of dignity and quality of life.

And for those with disabilities from birth, the challenges are even more pronounced. To protect their disabled family members from societal humiliation and scorn, many families find themselves compelled to conceal their severely disabled family members from the outside world entirely. This predicament is notably prevalent in cases involving girls with mental disabilities.

With the Taliban back in power, the various restrictions and bans on women’s employment have also left disabled women unable to make their own income. A 25-year-old woman from a northern province in Afghanistan shared her story, revealing that she and four of her siblings have been visually impaired since birth. Despite holding a university degree, she struggles to secure employment. She lamented, “My family invested in my education to enable me to lead an independent life and contribute to my sustenance. However, the Taliban's ban on women's employment has shattered my dreams and those of my family.”

The ban on women’s employment, combined with the absence of a comprehensive support program for disabled individuals, has forced many disabled women to resort to begging on the streets, enduring deplorable conditions. But Human Rights Watch reports that the Taliban's requirement for women to be accompanied by a mahram — a close male relative — has further compounded the challenges faced by women and girls with disabilities, as even the harrowing and dangerous act of begging is now no longer an option for many as they are excluded from all public life. 

In speaking with a 24-year-old woman that lost her leg in an explosion, she told me that not only is she unable to find employment for a dignified income — she also lacks a male blood relative to accompany her outside the home. This has left her feeling helpless and hopeless, as she expressed: “I am a prisoner at home because I am a woman and have disability. I don't have a father or brother to accompany me outside.”

Meanwhile, the inconsistency of disability assistance payments under the Taliban has forced many families to borrow money from friends and relatives to cover their living expenses while awaiting the next payment. Borrowing money becomes particularly arduous for women, as they have limited access to employment opportunities and stable income streams to repay such loans.

One woman from western Afghanistan spoke of the challenges of being a single, visually impaired individual in the country. Despite receiving an education and working under the republic government, she now faces unemployment under the Taliban. She currently receives an annual sum of 60,000 Afghanis (equivalent to $820) in two installments at the beginning and middle of the year. She revealed that during the intervals between payments, her family resorts to borrowing money from neighbors and relatives, and often struggle to afford enough food.

Another disabled Afghan woman, a former law student, told a similar story: “Every six months, the de facto government provides me with 18,000 Afghanis ($260), but in between these payments, my family is forced to borrow money. Given the widespread poverty, it is very hard to even borrow money these days.”

Closing the Door on Disabled Women and Girls’ Future

The former law student’s story also touches on another particularly troubling trend under the Taliban:  The expulsion of female students with visual and hearing impairments from schools tailored to meet their specific needs, as well as the prohibition on NGOs providing vital awareness-raising and mental health services.

By also cutting off access to education, the Taliban are not just leaving disabled women and girls in a dire and destitute financial situation, they’re closing the door on their future as well. As the former law student told me, her aspiration is simple yet powerful: To earn an income in a dignified manner. She firmly believes in the capabilities of her mind, stating, “I did not choose my disability and I am not entirely without use.”

This goal to provide for oneself was a common refrain among the women I spoke with. One woman who became paraplegic at the age of seven due to polio said she completed her education up to the third grade — but still aspires to attain a higher education and acquire employable skills, envisioning a future where she can support both herself and her family.

Another woman in her late twenties, born with a paralyzed leg, mentioned she’d made it to her second year of university before the Taliban banned university education for female students. Despite this setback, she revealed her dream is to become a physicist.

Given the opportunity to develop their abilities, individuals with disabilities can contribute to the workforce, earn income and support their families. However, the current situation in Afghanistan often makes them feel like a burden on their families, leading to various forms of depression and anxiety, compounded by the uncertainty of having enough food to eat.

Empowering Afghans with Disabilities

But what can be done to help create more opportunities for disabled Afghans, especially women and girls? The mother of a young woman with a physical disability had a message she wanted me to convey to the international community: “I urge the authorities and the international community not to ignore the challenges faced by people with disabilities. Don’t treat them as if they are invisible or devoid of needs and interests,” but instead provide employment opportunities based on the skills and abilities of those with disabilities and acknowledge their capabilities.

Or as another disabled Afghan told me: “We do not want to depend on charity.”

Of course, the Taliban are a major obstacle to this goal — and they are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Likewise, the United States, and the international community more broadly, are still debating how to engage with the Taliban regime going forward. But there are actions that can be taken today that can help alleviate the burdens carried by disabled Afghans. These include:

  • Humanitarian aid organizations can prioritize special programs aimed at providing aid to persons with disabilities, with a particular focus on women and girls who face additional constraints due to their disabilities and Taliban-imposed restrictions.
  • Ongoing vocational training and income generation projects should be carefully crafted to accommodate the diverse needs and abilities of persons with disabilities.

And as policymakers continue to develop the contours of a relationship with the Taliban regime, it is crucial to effectively advocate for disabled individuals’ basic right to dignified living conditions and ensure that they receive the support they need to thrive. To do so in their dealings with the Taliban, policymakers should keep several key points at the forefront of their mind:

  • The Taliban have been outspoken about their ability to collect revenue from tax and customs. The Taliban’s confidence in their revenue collection should be leveraged by the international community to pressure the Taliban into providing adequate financial and living conditions for persons with disabilities.
  • The Taliban must allocate dedicated funds to improve the financial and living conditions of persons with disabilities regardless of their gender or cause of disability. While they have made some gestures toward rectifying past biases regarding non-war-related disabilities, the Taliban must be pushed to put this into practice, expand its scope to include women, and cease its preferential treatment of Taliban-affiliated individuals.
  • The Taliban should ensure that women with disabilities have unrestricted access to education and vocational training. This is already a point of contention between the Taliban regime and the international community, but its importance to the future of disabled Afghan women and girls should only strengthen policymakers’ resolve on the issue.

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