FEATURE-As women flee Afghanistan, brain drain hits economy …
* Professional women leaving due to threats
* The exodus will have an impact on the economy – and the emerging generation
* Women judges hidden after the return of the Taliban
By Emma Batha and Shadi Khan Saif
LONDON / ISLAMABAD, October 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – M arzia has spent the past decade caring for some of Kabul’s poorest women, but the midwife has now packed her stethoscope with some precious photos, before leaving the hospital. Afghanistan with her husband and son.
The health worker is part of a major brain drain of professional women – entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists, journalists and more – that many say will set the country back decades.
“I’m not leaving happy, but heartbroken,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“So many educated and professional women like me are leaving because of the threats to our lives. But it will be devastating for the country in the long run,” said Marzia, who asked not to use her full name.
Tens of thousands of people fled Afghanistan in a massive evacuation organized by the United States and partner countries after the Taliban took control on August 15.
Others left with the help of international organizations or on their own, fearing the danger of the new era of the Taliban.
Marzia, 34, said the exodus would hurt the country’s economy and decimate the aspirations of younger generations.
When the Taliban was last in power from 1996 to 2001, they banned women from working and imposed severe restrictions on their daily lives, flogging or stoning those who broke the rules.
The education of girls has also been banned.
Since then, there has been a massive international effort to boost women’s education, empowerment and economic opportunities.
âBrain drain is a major concern,â said Manizha Wafeq, president of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI).
“We’ve all invested a lot in creating a great pool of professionals to support the country – in politics, economics, engineering, environment – everything.”
There are an estimated 57,000 women-run businesses in Afghanistan, from women craft traders to dried fruit exporters.
They employ around 130,000 people and provide work for thousands of women who make handicrafts at home.
Wafeq said women have increasingly made inroads into traditionally male sectors such as IT services and media.
Even running a cafe is considered a man’s job as it is often taboo for women to interact with men outside the home.
Girls are particularly hard hit by the loss of exemplary women.
âWe had created many models for the next generation,â said Wafeq.
“They saw that so-and-so had set up a travel agency, a construction company, an IT company, and was like ‘I can do that too.’ If these women leave, we lose hope.”
The Taliban say women will be allowed to work under Islamic law, but have not clarified exactly what that means.
Many women – including female civil servants – have already lost their jobs; others were ordered to stay at home.
AWCCI has called on the Taliban to let women-run businesses resume operations and is awaiting a meeting with officials.
â(A lot of women) don’t want to leave. They’ve given their whole life to start these businesses,â Wafeq said.
Zahra Rezaie, 34, who runs a carpet business providing work for 200 weavers, was among those who fled.
Now in Albania and hoping to make it to the United States, Rezaie said she decided to leave in part because she was living alone – “a big taboo for the Taliban”.
âI was so scared,â said Rezaie, who still runs his business from overseas.
HEALTH AND EDUCATION
The World Bank says Afghanistan’s long-term prospects depend on greater participation of women in the economy and society.
Before the Taliban takeover, one in five urban women worked. Women made up about a quarter of government officials and MPs, and tens of thousands were studying at universities.
Economists say expanding women’s opportunities also helps lift their families, communities and countries out of poverty.
Experts fear that the exodus of professionals will also reduce women’s future access to health care and education.
The Taliban say men shouldn’t teach girls or women, and many men don’t let male doctors treat their wives and daughters.
Afghanistan has cut maternal and child mortality rates by more than half over the past 20 years, but the World Bank says a collapsing health service could see the rate rise by a third.
Farzana Rahimi, a 43-year-old councilor from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, said the brain drain would also sabotage efforts to help women access justice and tackle domestic violence.
Studies suggest that 87% of Afghan women experience abuse.
Rahimi, who worked for an organization providing legal support and trauma counseling to victims, was traveling to the airport with his family when the Taliban captured Kabul.
“I thought I would be killed instantly,” said Rahimi, rebuilding her life in Canada.
Rights activists, lawyers and judges have also fled or gone into hiding, fearing reprisals from Taliban supporters.
Women judges have received death threats after the Taliban released some of the men they had imprisoned. Others are at risk after ruling against men in cases of domestic violence, divorce and child custody.
Rahimi said women will no longer get justice in the courts because the Taliban does not accept that a woman has the right to try men.
âThe company will go back to past centuries,â she said.
“When I think about everything we’ve done over the past 20 years to build our country, it’s now a big zero.” (Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; edited by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http: // news .trust.org)
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