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Suicide among Afghan women is rising under Taliban rule

Afghanistan is one of very few countries where women commit suicide at higher rates than men, but the Taliban won’t share data about it.
afghan suicide
Refugee woman standing behind a fence. (Getty Images)

Long before the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, it was a well-known fact that a return to Taliban rule would be a disaster for the women of Afghanistan. After the U.S. invasion in 2001, Afghan women enjoyed freedom and civil rights that were unprecedented in most of their lifetimes.

For most of the 20th century, in fact, women’s rights in Afghanistan had been on an upward trend, coming to a nadir during Afghanistan’s Communist era under Soviet domination. It was only when the Afghan mujahideen came to power that women’s rights began to drastically reverse. The rule of the Taliban, with an Islamic tradition akin to Saudi Arabia’s, meant the harsh repression of all their rights. As the American withdrawal approached, Afghans began to suffer mental health crises.

Women are killing themselves at a high rate. Afghanistan is one of very few countries where women commit suicide at higher rates than men, but the Taliban won’t allow health workers to share data about it. What healthcare agencies do know is that the figures are alarming between August 2021 and August 2022. 

The last year real data on women’s health was 2019, when the World Health Organization saw two-thirds of Afghanistan’s suicides were women. Since suicide is considered shameful by Afghan culture, the real numbers may be even higher. 

“Most of the suicides are in places such as Takhar, Kunduz, Bamyan, Badghis, Faryab, Mazar-i-Sharif, and other rural areas,” said Maryam Marof Arwin, who heads Afghanistan Women and Children Strengthen Welfare Organisation. “The Taliban tries to suppress reports of suicides. Most of the time it doesn’t allow the media to publish these reports. But we are seeing an increase in the number of suicides, and we are worried about the situation of women, especially girls.”

After the Taliban takeover of the Afghan government, it reneged on a promise to gender segregate university classrooms and allow women to continue their education. Only males were permitted to attend classes. Young girls are now restricted to an education that stops at grade six. 

afghan suicide among women
Afghan burqa-clad women hold placards as they protest for their right to education, in Mazar-i-Sharif on August 12, 2023. (Photo by ATEF ARYAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Before the takeover, women comprised 25% of Afghanistan’s government, but now they are barred from high-ranking positions. There is also now only one hospital in Kabul where women can get health care. Even if they could go to any hospital, men are not allowed to treat women and the lack of female health workers provides a grim outlook for the future. 

Women in Afghanistan began breaking down in the months before the U.S. withdrawal, the Guardian reports. They had significant cause for concern. Domestic abuse, forced marriages and underage marriages were the result of the Taliban takeover in the two years since. Massive unemployment, dress restrictions and access to basic services only compounded the problem. Now it’s estimated that one to two women take their own lives every day in the country.

The Taliban government doesn’t even record suicide figures, so most news stories about suicide come from anecdotal sources, but estimates from external agencies confirm what families tell reporters. The United Nations says that nine out of 10 Afghan women are subject to domestic abuse, and women are killing themselves to escape it, one last act of defiance. 

“The situation is catastrophic and critical. But we are not allowed to record or access suicide statistics. I can definitely say, though that you can barely find someone who is not suffering from a mental illness,” Dr Shaan, a psychiatrist who works at a public hospital in Afghanistan, told the BBC