Whatever Happened to Women and Children First?
“All wars, whether just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child.” Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, 1919.
In Kabul, the children are everywhere. You see them scrounging through trash. You see them doing manual labor in the auto body shops, the butchers, and the construction sites. They carry teapots and glasses from shop to shop. You see them moving through the snarled traffic swirling small pots of pungent incense, warding off evil spirits and trying to collect small change. They can be found sleeping in doorways or in the rubble of destroyed buildings. It is estimated that 70,000 children live on the streets of Kabul.
The big news story on CNN this morning is the excitement generated as hundreds of people line up to buy the newest iphone. I can’t stop thinking of the children sitting in the dirt of the refugee camp, or running down the path pushing old bicycle tires, or the young boy sitting next to his overflowing sacks of collected detritus. He has a deep infection on the corner of his mouth that looks terribly infected. These images contrast with an image of an old grandfather, dressed in a spotless all white shalwar kameez squatting on the sidewalk outside a huge iron gate, embracing his beautiful young grand daughter in a huge hug, each smiling broadly, one of the few moments of joy I have witnessed on the streets of Kabul.
In Afghanistan, one in five children die before their 5th birthday, (41% of the deaths occur in the first month of life). For the children who make it past the first month, many perish due to preventable and highly treatable conditions including diarrhea and pneumonia. Malnourishment affects 39% of the children, compared to 25% at the start of the U.S. invasion. 52% don’t have access to clean water. 94% of births are not registered. The children are afforded very little legal protection, especially girls, who are stilled banned from schools in many regions, used as collateral to settle debts, and married through arranged marriages as young as 10 years old. Though not currently an issue, HIV/AIDS looms as a catastrophic possibility as drug addiction increases significantly, even among women and children. Only 16% of women use modern contraception, and children on the streets are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. This is why the “State of the World’s Mothers” report issued in May 2011 by Save the Children ranked Afghanistan last, with only Somalia providing worse outcomes for their children.
Retired Army Col. John Agoglia said, “A key to America’s long-term national security and one of the best ways for our nation to make friends around the world is by promoting the health of women and children in fragile and emerging nations”–in Afghanistan, this strategy is failing. Not a single public hospital has been built since the invasion. It is not an impossibility; it is a matter of will. Emergency, an Italian NGO, runs 3 hospitals and 30 clinics throughout Afghanistan on a budget of 7 million dollars per year. This is ISAF’s (NATO’s International Security Assistance Force) monthly budget for air-conditioning.
Polls have consistently shown that over 90 percent of Americans believe saving children should be a national priority. Children comprise 65% of the Afghan population. Afghanistan was named the worst place on earth to be a child. In Afghanistan children have been sacrificed by the United States, collateral damage in our “war on terror”.
The mothers of these at risk children are not faring any better. Most are illiterate. Most are chronically malnourished. 1 woman in 11 dies in pregnancy or childbirth, this compares to 1 in 2,100 in the US (the highest of any industrialized nation). In Italy and Ireland, the risk of maternal death is less than 1 in 15,000 and in Greece it’s 1 in 31,800. Skilled health professionals attend only 14% of childbirths. A woman’s life expectancy is barely 45 years of age.
Women are still viewed as property. A law has been passed by the Karzai regime that legalizes marital rape, and requires a woman to get the permission of her husband to leave the house. Domestic violence is a chronic problem. A women who runs away from home (even if escaping violence) is imprisoned. Upon completion of her sentence she is returned to the husband. Self-immolation is still common as desperate women try to get out of impossible situations.
Shortly after the U.S. invasion, Laura Bush said, “The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.” President Bush said, “Our coalition has liberated Afghanistan and restored fundamental human rights and freedoms to Afghan women, and all the people of Afghanistan.” Actually, the former warlords responsible for the destruction, pillage, and rape of Afghanistan were ushered back into power by the United States. In 2007, these very same warlords, now Parliamentarians, passed a bill that granted amnesty for any killings during the civil war. A local journalist said, “The killers are the ones holding the pens, writing the law and continuing their crimes.”
When Malalai Joya addressed the Peace Loya Jirga convened in December, 2003, she boldly asked, “Why are we allowing criminals to be present here?” She was thrown out of the assembly. Undeterred, she ran for Parliament, winning in a landslide. She began her maiden speech in Parliament by saying, "My condolences to the people of Afghanistan..." As she continued speaking, the warlord sitting behind her threatened to rape and kill her. The MP’s voted her out of Parliament and Karzai upheld her ouster. In hiding, she continues to champion women’s rights. She has stated that the only people who can liberate Afghan women are the women themselves. When we spoke briefly to her by phone, she stated that she was surprised to still be alive, and needed to cancel our meeting, as it was too dangerous in the current security situation. The Red Cross states that the security situation is the worst it has been in 30 years.
In America, as our total defense budget balloons to 667 billion dollars per year, women and children are faring worse as well. In the “State of the World’s Mothers” report, America has dropped from 11th in 2003 to 31st of the developed countries today. We currently rank behind such luminaries as Estonia, Croatia, and Slovakia. We fall even farther in regards to our children, going from the 4th ranked country to the 34th. Poverty is on the increase with an estimated 1 child in 5 living in poverty. More than 20 million children rely on school lunch programs to keep from going hungry. The number of people living in poverty in America has grown by 2.6 million in just the last 12 months.
Dear reader, I hesitate to bother you with so many statistics, I eliminated the pie charts and graphs, and this report is still dull. After all, the new iphone has Siri, a personal assistant that understands you when you speak. You can verbally instruct it to send a text message, and it does! Now that’s excitement! CNN states there is no need to panic; the Atlanta store has plenty of phones to fill the demand.
Looking only at numbers it is easy to avoid the truth of the enormous amount of human suffering they envelop. Drive through the streets of any American city and these statistics come alive in the swollen ranks of the homeless. Drive through the streets of Kabul and these statistics come alive in the forms of hungry children begging for change.
It is difficult to ascertain what benefit America is deriving from our continued military presence in Afghanistan, though exploitation of natural resources certainly plays a role. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent in a military strategy that is failing by all indicators. Yet the politicians in this country continue to back this strategy. Arms dealers and contractors, like G.E. and Boeing, all with lobbyists on Capitol Hill, continue to reap big financial rewards and in turn reward politicians with financial support. Our politicians claim to be “tough on terror” and profess we are “winning”. But by what measure do they ascertain this? The only Afghan people benefiting from our presence are the people supporting the occupation forces, the warlords, and the drug lords. As the poppy fields produce record yields “poppy palaces” are springing up all over Kabul, ostentatious signs that someone is benefiting from our interference.
One measure to judge the success of a nation is its ability to protect its most vulnerable populations. America is not succeeding. The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is still a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control. When will our politicians hear the desperate cry of the street children of Afghanistan, who, with all the incense in the world, simply can’t ward off the evil of our occupation?