Mental Health of Women and Children in conflict zones: Their Bodies and Health are the Battlefields of War.
Over the last two months, the world watched in horror and despair, as the Taliban toppled the Afghanistan government. After 20 years of the USA and its allies’ invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attack in the USA at New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania; what was once called “the beginning of an era for Afghan women’s rights” is now being eradicated by seconds. I am a Core Trainee Psychiatrist working in Cornwall. I am part of the executive committee for the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Women’s Mental Health Special Interests Group. I am a passionate advocate of gender equality and women’s rights. I have written articles, such as the need for women leadership in the UN, and how COVID-19 unmasked the ongoing pandemic of gender-based violence.
The plight of Afghan women losing their human rights continues, amidst grave fears for their safety and staying alive. We should not “normalise” victimisation of women in war conflicts, which is continuing elsewhere in the globe but remains overlooked in the upstream media.
From 15th August this year, the Taliban takeover meant that Afghan women’s rights to freedom and choices were overturned by the misogynists’ hatred of women in religion.
Whilst I was listening to BBC’s Woman’s Hour, Lynne O’Donnell (a journalist who was in Kabul, until 15th August 2021) had escaped from Kabul to save her life. She fears for the women’s and girls’ education, safety, and lives, as well as highlighted the removal of Afghan women’s free choices. On the fact that the Taliban are forcing women to wear hijabs and burqas under the cover of Islam, Lynne said “to force Afghan women to wear hijabs and burqas, it removes the women’s free choice on how to connect oneself to God”.
Women are removed from workplaces or forbidden to go outside without a male chaperone. Billboards and photographs featuring women are being painted over, as well as the windows of hairdressing salons and fashion retailers.
Girls are no longer allowed to attend secondary school, hence fears of early child marriages to Taliban soldiers. On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban announced that women will only be allowed to study at universities in gender-segregated classrooms taught by female teachers, and Islamic dress will be compulsory. With the limited availability of female teachers and facilities to offer such gender apartheid under the new regime, women’s education will be limited.
Despite promises of the new Taliban regime being “inclusive” and “respective of women’s and girls’ rights within the Islamic network” — not a single woman remains in the new Afghanistan’s cabinet and women have been banned from sports. Taliban spokesman Sayed Zekrullah Hashimi said that the role of women was “to give birth and raise children….not necessary that women be in the cabinet”.
The empty promises by the Taliban that claim that “women and children” would be the center of their policymaking under their new regime, fall short by the lack of application and overlooking in international institutions. This highlights the double standards and dichotomy for an authoritarian misogyny ruling.
In 2010, Hilary Clinton said that “the subjugation of women….is a threat to the common security of our world”. She is right; societies that oppress women are more likely to be violent and unstable.
Boko Haram and ISIS promise their recruiters “wives” as rewards for war. The “wives” are the school-aged girls or women of a young family, whose husbands and sons have been massacred in front of them. The women and girls are violently raped by multiple war soldiers, enduring severe physical and emotional trauma. However, the war on women doesn’t end there.
Rape and female-based violence are the cheapest forms of war weapons that man can use because the post-war period subsequently leads to these women being left in derelict conditions. Nobody wants to recognize them, and nobody wants to marry them. These women are ostracised from the communities, living in tents and camps amidst stenches of blocked latrines, with a lack of food and water.
Nevertheless, this perpetuating failure to protect women and children (especially young girls) in peace talks is nothing new and hasn’t changed over the years.
In Northeastern Syria, where a battle is fought between the Kurdish- led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish invaders, a desolate camp called al- Hol accommodated 70,000 women and children as “families of ISIS suspects”. Reportedly those sons over the age of 12 were snatched by SDF guards during the nights, the medical clinic was shut for days, and overflowing latrines with scarce amounts of food and water. According to the International Rescue Committee, between December 2018 and September 2019, nearly 340 children have died in the al-Hol camp — most from severe diarrhea or malnutrition, which could have been treated.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states, under Article 7, that Crimes Against Humanity describe any acts when committed as part of a widespread attack directed against any civilian population, including “Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity”. Yet despite this, these criminalizing acts and abuse are being permitted to continue, and the enforcers are protected with impunity.
Women and children play the largest role in society, yet during the war and armed conflicts, they are the lowest echelons in society. As community infrastructure, such as health education and other social services sectors, are destroyed, women and children are exploited to all types of abuse and are the most affected by traumatic events. The ostracisation and the disintegration of these victims lead to forced migration and asylum.
Many women endure assaults and sexual violence by rival groups or working guards. Following collapses of facilities and health centers, the deplorable negative impact of war affects the mental and physical wellbeing of these victims. As a result, STDs (Sexual Transmitted Diseases), physical trauma to the female genitalia, unwanted pregnancies, and psychological abuse and trauma are left untreated.
Furthermore, the psychological responses to the shock of war and conflict significantly impact the children, including nightmares, physical symptoms (i.e., stomach aches), selective mutism, difficult concentration, and hyper-vigilance. The lack of counseling support and security prevents women and children to overcome the inhumane psycho-social and physical pain.
The continuing circular of motion includes war, lack of security and continuous exposure of violence against women (both direct and indirectly). When the women and children are continuously being failed by their own government officials’ protection, the whole nation fails, subsequently leading to a never-ending break from this cycle of armed conflicts and civilians suffering. For this cycle to be broken, it requires collective global responses from world leaders.
The CAPE Vulnerability Index identifies a number of fragile states where the experiences of women and children are similar to those described here.
Global decision-makers, for example, United Nations, G20, and local regional state holders, should consider the interests of half the population, including having more women who advocate for women’s rights and gender equality, at the table of peace talks. Between 1992 and 2019, only 13% of negotiators and 6% of signatories of peace deals were female.
If we have any hope to understand the world and end this war against displaced women and children (at the end of 2020, 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide; approximately 50% represent women and girls), the global decision-makers need to place the women and children as 1st priority in correlations to their major role in serving their country’s economic, agricultural, security and healthcare stability.
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash