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OPINION: The awful truth about growing up in Afghanistan

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(Last Updated On: November 17, 2020)

On a Saturday afternoon in late October, a suicide bomber tried to enter an education centre in Kabul. Prevented from doing so by security guards, the attacker entered a nearby lane and set off the explosives. At least 24 people were killed including schoolchildren. Many more were injured.

A colleague’s daughter survived the attack, but many more parents are still in mourning.

In the same month, an airstrike in the north-east of the country hit a school, reportedly killing at least 12 children. Insurgents were the intended target. Cold comfort for the grieving parents whose loved ones were killed in an act of fire and fury.

Attacks like this, that violate the laws of war, that directly impact children, are far too common in Afghanistan. If they occurred in the western world there would be widespread condemnation. Sadly, they often go under-reported as a result of competing global news stories, such as the COVID19 pandemic and the US Presidential election.

As the UN revealed in its latest report on the civilian cost of the Afghan war, nearly 1,900 children were killed or maimed in the first nine months of 2020.

This is truly shocking.

A 14-year-old Afghan girl told us, “When fighting breaks out, no place is safe in our village, but home is still better than outside. We hide in the corners of rooms.”

The awful truth is that every child in Afghanistan today has grown up in conflict.

The escalation in violence has hindered the education of children, too. The Global Coalition to Protect Education under Attack recorded more than 300 attacks on schools between 2017 and 2019, which injured or killed at least 410 students and teachers.

Even before the COVID19 pandemic, an estimated 3.7 million children, almost half of all primary school aged children, were out of school.

The impact of this on children is severe.

Lack of access to education leads to an increased risk of abuse and exploitation. And we know that in Afghanistan 93 per cent of late primary school-aged children are not proficient in reading. For 15 to 24-year-olds literary is 65 per cent.

The nation’s under-investment in education, presently 78 per cent less than the average for the South Asia region will have profound impact for years to come, but especially for girls.

Educated girls are crucial to the lasting peace of a conflict-affected country like Afghanistan. We know from experience that educated girls experience improved health and nutrition and contribute to better economic performance and growth.

We’re extremely concerned that 60 per cent of school-age children missing out on their education are girls. This would not be tolerated in the UK, the US or Australia, so why is it acceptable in Afghanistan?

And now the country has to cope with the COVID19 pandemic. In a country where the dilapidated health system has also been attacked, where doctors and nurses have been killed too.

All this in a country where nearly 50 per cent of the population, 18.4 million people, will need humanitarian assistance this year. Where 5.5 million people could soon experience famine conditions and 3 million children under the age of five suffer from under-nutrition, according to the UN.

Little wonder that Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be a child.

It therefore beggars belief that despite a dramatic rise in humanitarian need, international aid to Afghanistan has tumbled. Donors have gradually funded less and less of the UN’s annual pleas for humanitarian support, from 87.5% in 2016 to 76% in 2019. This year’s appeal has so far only received a pitiful 40% of what is needed.

That’s why in the upcoming day Afghanistan donor conference in Geneva is crucially important.

At this conference, which takes places as nascent peace talks offer cautious hope for a political settlement to the war, the international community must deliver increased funding for education, especially for girls, as well as protect the interests of people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.

There must be increased spending on public health to dramatically improve life-expectancy outcomes of children, many of whom are having to live with life-altering injuries due to being caught up in the conflict.

The international community must work with the government of Afghanistan to ensure national laws related to the protection of children are fully resourced and rolled out nationwide. And it must continue work to help secure an enduring peace settlement so that future generations of children grow up free from the fear of violence and death.

This and more must be our commitment to a nation whose people have endured decades of hardship, conflict and violence. Indeed, it is vital so that a country racked by decades of fighting and division is able to forge a better future for all its citizens.

Written by Chris Nyamandi, Save the Children’s Country Director for Afghanistan

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Peace won’t be found in silence or fear, says AIHRC chair 

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(Last Updated On: February 28, 2021)

One year ago today – February 28 – Afghans were buoyed by the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in Doha, which they hoped would bring peace. Instead, today, a year later, targeted killings have spiked leaving thousands of civil society activists, government officials, journalists and even doctors fearing for their lives. 

Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), wrote in an op-ed piece, published in the Washington Post, that “every night, I lie awake wondering who will be next. I think of a colleague whose teenage son checks his car every morning for magnetic bombs. A husband saying goodbye to his wife as she leaves for work, wondering if today will be the day she is killed on her way to the office.”

She said that a year after the deal was signed, instead of ushering in peace “one of the most tangible changes has been an increase in targeted killings, mostly unclaimed, that have created an environment of terror and fear. 

“There were nearly three times the number of such attacks in 2020 compared with 2019; the casualties include the deaths of 11 human rights defenders and media workers in the past five months,” she wrote. 

Akbar pointed out that some of Afghanistan’s most important gains, its activists, community leaders and scholars, are being silenced at a time when, after the US-Taliban deal, Afghans had hoped for a reduction in violence and for inclusive intra-Afghan negotiations.

“While the Taliban denies involvement in most targeted attacks, it benefits from the environment of fear and hopelessness around the peace process and the lack of critical voices demanding an inclusive peace. 

“This reign of terror for Afghan civilians must end in order for a real peace process to begin,” Akbar wrote. 

She also pointed out that as the United States reviews its Afghanistan policy, it still has leverage — including the existing UN sanctions on the Taliban, the Taliban’s desire for international recognition and legitimacy, and the presence of international forces in Afghanistan — to help stop these attacks and encourage a ceasefire and an inclusive peace process.

She stated that her AIHRC colleagues know what it is to feel terror as the organization has lost three of its staff members in the past 18 months.

Akbar pointed out that these high levels of violence are forcing families to flee the country. 

“Every day I hear of another friend, journalist, academic, women’s rights activist or businessperson leaving the country. Their departures are creating an absence that will take another generation to fill. Those who can’t leave feel silenced by fear and have little chance of influencing the peace process,” she wrote.

Akbar also noted that it has been years since the last mass demonstration by Afghans – “for fear of attacks”. 

She also said that following the recent wave of assassinations, public debate has closed down, even in the virtual sphere. “This is even more true beyond Kabul, in rural areas where conflict has been the most savage.”

Akbar stated that while US President Joe Biden’s team has signaled that it will withdraw its last troops as per the agreement with the Taliban, if the group reduces violence. she said: “This is welcome but not enough. Even with overall violence levels down, targeted killings are silencing the voices needed to build pressure for peace.”

“The United States does not want Afghanistan to collapse into a catastrophic civil war as soon as it withdraws, after 20 years of assistance. But the narrow focus of the US-Taliban deal ignored the wider needs of the peace process, including the importance of civic space and the protection of civilians. This approach should be urgently reconsidered in Biden’s review,” she said.

Akbar stated that public participation is not a bonus that is “nice to have” but rather an inclusive process that builds momentum for peace and boosts the credibility of the process. 

Bringing traditional and nontraditional civil society voices to the table from across Afghanistan will bring a sense of urgency and bottom-up pressure on the parties.

She also stated that public participation can best be guaranteed through a ceasefire and that the US and its allies should utilize their leverage with both sides and the region to continue to push for an interim and immediate ceasefire that will create an opportunity for national engagement. 

“An immediate end to targeted killings, a ceasefire and the restoration of civic space will allow for broader inclusion in the talks, reviving hope and confidence in the process,” she said.

Akbar stated that the US can encourage the Taliban and the Afghan government to create this enabling environment for peace. Afghans could then force hope back onto the table.

“We will not find peace in silence and fear,” Akbar stated.

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