Afghanistan, an earthquake, and what earthquakes mean for women…
A 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit Afghanistan on Wednesday 22 June leaving more than 1000 dead, over 1500 injured, and 3000 homes destroyed. And with this being the worst earthquake in 20 years, the numbers are likely to rise.
At this stage, it is estimated that $15 million is needed just for immediate relief — emergency shelter, food, water, and sanitation. And even then, efforts have been disrupted due to telecommunications issues and poor weather conditions.
As if we needed another tragedy to remind the world that Afghanistan exists — and still needs support.
Afghanistan is only on the map when the news is bad. Meanwhile, the country has suffered multiple protracted crises for decades. In August of 2021, the Taliban reclaimed power and the US and international donors cut off funding to the country. Here’s the result: nearly 23 million people are suffering from extreme levels of hunger, with nine million at risk of famine. Millions are out of work and those still employed haven’t been paid.
And women… they’ve suffered immeasurably. After two decades and promises of freedom, women’s rights have been rolled back drastically. Families have been forced to sell their daughters in order to survive. This only scratches the surface.
This earthquake reminds me of Haiti. And Nepal. And what earthquakes do to women and girls.
How can a natural disaster discriminate against women? Don’t these tragedies affect everyone equally? Nope.
In 2010 I was deployed to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.
… where women living in camps were afraid to use the toilet — because of the risks they faced trying to get there.
… where girls as young as 9 were being raped by packs of 11-year old boys.
… where peacekeepers giving out food rations would offer “a little extra” to women who will do “a little extra” for them.
We’ve seen over and over how disasters affect women much more than men. And the worse the disaster, the more dramatic the impact on women.
A few years later, I was in Nepal for the humanitarian response following the 2015 earthquake. Of the 1.3 million people affected, about 53% were women.
Why? Women were home. Less able to escape. Encumbered by traditional clothing. Restricted in terms of freedom of movement. Also trying to save their children. We saw the same in the 2005 Tsunami. And then, more women drowned because they were never even taught to swim.
But when the disaster ends, it doesn’t seem to end for women. Even before disaster strikes, women are more vulnerable — particularly in patriarchal societies. Meaning, all societies.
With a disaster, this vulnerability is amplified.
Disasters bring out the best — and worst — in us. Initially we save each other, we support each other. But when the dust settles, and people realize what they’ve lost, women become increasingly targeted.
Women and girls face increased risk of violence — rape, trafficking, sexual exploitation, girl-child marriage.
I know this because I work in humanitarian emergencies — conflicts, natural disasters — the messy stuff in the world. And in the midst of that messy stuff, I work on preventing and responding to sexual violence — or trying to, anyway.
Here’s what I know:
Right after a war, or a natural disaster, in the midst of all that chaos — law and order, support and services, community networks — all these things are damaged and destroyed.
At the moment you’d expect us all to stick together — we don’t. At those times, sexual violence actually increases.
So — when we think the emergency is over — for women it is actually just beginning.
It is true for Haiti, for Nepal, for the Tsunami, for Hurricane Katrina, and now for Afghanistan. And many other tragedies in between.
So what are we going to do about it?!
My good friend, Afghanistan expert Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam explained that the number of deaths will rise due to lack of rescue services, equipment and emergency services. Ambulance and rapid responder services in Afghanistan are derelict — or nonexistent. And, in the current heat, people will die, trapped in the rubble.
Sippi went on to say that lack of an adequate number of mobile female healthcare staff can prove problematic in an area which is very conservative, especially in remote places. “Emergency situations with large numbers of men and chaos is considered an unsuitable scenario for women to work in,” she explains. “This means a lack of services, assistance and support for women — at the moment they need it most.”
How can we help?!
Yes, we’ve got a lot of competing tragedies these days. The world feels unusually full of crap. But will we gawk in horror for a media-moment, shake our heads, and move on to the next big thing? Or will we focus our attention briefly, channeling some empathy and ultimately some action? I’m opting for the latter. If that’s your plan too, head here:
For the latest developments in the country, follow:
For earthquake relief and support, see:
For general support for Afghanistan, start with:
For what’s happening with Afghan women, go here: