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OPINION: As families flee Afghan conflict, let's not forget those hit by climate disasters

by Maliha Malikpour | ActionAid
Thursday, 22 July 2021 17:31 GMT

FILE PHOTO: An internally displaced Afghan girl carries a child near their shelter at a camp on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women and children, forced from their homes by floods and drought, are at greater risk of violence and exploitation

Maliha Malikpour is women’s rights policy manager at ActionAid Afghanistan

Mina* lost everything when severe flooding tore through her village in Afghanistan’s Badghis province. Her husband was killed, her home was destroyed, and all her belongings were swept away. She fled with her four children to a refugee camp near Herat.

I met Mina when I travelled to the camp earlier this year to meet with families displaced by climate disasters. Life there is tough, especially for single women. Women said they rarely leave the camp alone because they fear harassment, which prevents them from looking for work.

Mina spins wool, earning just 40 AFN ($0.50) a week to feed her family. Like many others whose families cannot afford to send them to school, Mina’s children work collecting rubbish and selling it to be recycled. “We have a difficult life. It scares me that they are out all day collecting rubbish because there have been issues of child kidnapping,” she told me.

The Shaiday refugee camp near Herat, is home to 42,000 families, with an estimated 75% displaced by recent climate disasters and slow onset weather events, such as flooding and drought.

ActionAid’s new report, Invisible women: a gender analysis of climate-induced migration in South Asia, shows how women and children are disproportionally affected by climate migration, which puts them at greater risk of gender-based violence, child labour and exploitation. 

We found that women and girls who are displaced due to climate disasters are more likely to face domestic violence, sexual harassment, trafficking and forced early and child marriage.

During my visit, I met parents who had lost everything due to severe flooding and were seeking a ‘bride price’ for girls as young as two, who they could no longer afford to care for.

I went to Shaiday as part of our research project, supporting renowned Afghan photographer, Farzana Wahidy, to capture the hidden stories of the women and children whose lives have been torn apart by climate disasters and ongoing conflict.

Their heartbreaking stories have stayed with me and I worry about how the rising insecurity is affecting the families we met, particularly Mina and the children forced to work to support their families, while dreaming of being able to go to school.

We met 12-year-old Nematullah and his friends, who were collecting rubbish to be recycled, earning as little as 50- 60 AFN ($0.60-$0.80) a day. They are among more than two million children in Afghanistan, between ages six and 14, who perform some type of child labour.

He described their gang as “one family collecting waste together”. But he has big dreams and told us: “If I was in school now, I would learn new things. When I’m older, I want to be a doctor, an engineer or a teacher. I want to earn a salary.”

While the focus nationally and internationally is on the fragility of the peace talks, the climate crisis is also wreaking havoc on Afghan lives and livelihoods.

ActionAid is providing immediate relief to families hit by severe drought in Herat. With food production affected, we’re also delivering more resilient seeds and livestock feed to help farmers prepare for the next growing season. They will also receive cash support for working on projects that will help protect their communities from future droughts and floods. 

Unless governments around the world act now to limit global warming at 1.5C, in Afghanistan 5 million people will be forced to migrate due to climate disasters by 2050, which is eight times more than current levels.

We must ensure that women and children are protected and listened to, both in the peace process and in climate negotiations.

Existing policies and strategies for responding to disasters must be climate-proofed and gender-responsive. This means recognising the disproportionate impact of climate migration on women and girls, and the increasing threat of gender-based violence, child marriage and exploitation they face due to the climate crisis.

Governments must ensure the safety and protection of women and girls in climate emergencies, including safe and equal access to basic services, food, and healthcare before, during and after disasters.

Women must also be included in decision-making in their communities so they can lead on boosting resilience and tackling the problems they face when they and their families are driven from their homes.

* Mina is a pseudonym to protect her identity.