A year of Taliban takeover: The missing women in Afghan workforce

A year of Taliban takeover: The missing women in Afghan workforce

It has been a year since 43-year-old Masuda Samar, a senior official at an Afghanistan ministry, stepped into her office.

On August 15 last year, she rushed home early from work to be with her family after hearing that the then Afghan president had fled the country, paving the way for the Taliban to seize capital Kabul.

When she went back a few days after the chaos that followed the takeover ebbed, Samar, who requested her name to be changed to avoid persecution by the Taliban, was told she was no longer welcome in the office where she had spent the last 17 years of her life.

The Taliban imposed several limitations on women’s freedoms since returning to power.

‘I feel so insulted’

While the new regime has not directly fired female government employees such as Samar, it has restricted women from entering the workplaces, paying them a significantly reduced salary to stay at home, many working Afghan women told Al Jazeera.

“We went back several times in the last one year [to appeal for their jobs]. We decided to wait at the gates of the ministry for days at end waiting to get a hold of the new minister, to convince him to change this decision, but they [Taliban guards] would send us away,” Samar told Al Jazeera.

Samar has been withdrawing her meagre salary regularly due to financial pressures on her family. But she feels humiliated.

“Each time I go to the bank, I wipe my tears first because I feel so insulted to take that amount, that I don’t even have the right to work and earn. I feel like a beggar,” she said.

“But then last month, I received a call from the human resource department, asking me to introduce a male family member to take my place. The HR person said the workload had increased due to the lack of female staff and they wanted to hire men to replace us,” she said.

“I was the one who studied to get this job. I worked hard to rise in the ranks and get this position despite the tough challenges. Why should I give up my job to my husband and brother?” she asked, the frustration seeping into her voice.

Meanwhile, in the private sector as well, several organisations have reduced the number of female staff, either out of financial crunch, Taliban coercion or as a precautionary measure to avoid the group’s wrath.

I was the one who studied to get this job. I worked hard to rise in the ranks and get this position despite the tough challenges. Why should I give up my job to my husband and brother?

by Female Afghan government employee

A study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) this year documented a disproportionate drop in women’s employment in Afghanistan – 16 percent in the months immediately following the Taliban takeover. In contrast, male employment dropped by 6 percent.

“In the pessimistic scenario in which restrictions intensify and women do not feel they can safely show up at their workplaces, the scale of job losses for women could reach 28 percent,” the report warned.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, women made up 22 percent of the Afghan workforce. While the figure is still dismal, it reflected years of social progress in a deeply patriarchal and conservative society like Afghanistan.

“Female labour force participation in Afghanistan had been increasing tremendously in the last decades, in some cases better than our regional neighbours,” Afghan economist Saeda Najafizada told Al Jazeera.

‘Less power’

Working women in Afghanistan are also vulnerable to unemployment shocks due to the existing economic crisis, restrictions on women’s movement by the Taliban, and the prevalent patriarchy.

“Women have less power over making their decisions in Afghanistan. Even decisions made by themselves, in many cases, are hugely influenced by societal norms that in a way push them into accepting unwanted outcomes,” Najafizada said.

She said the effect is devastating for the economy as it leads to more people having less or nothing to fulfil their basic needs and thus falling below the poverty line.

“The absence of women in workspaces in Afghanistan not only affects their household but [also] makes an entire economy dysfunctional,” she added.

While the Afghan economy has severely suffered due to the Western sanctions on the Taliban, women-centric businesses were among the worst affected due to the additional restrictions on women.

A recent World Bank survey noted that 42 percent of women-owned businesses in Afghanistan had temporarily closed compared with 26 percent of the firms owned by men.

Additionally, about 83 percent of the businesswomen indicated that they were expecting revenue losses over the next six months, forcing them to engage in coping mechanisms such as downsizing their staff, often comprising largely of women.

“A quarter of women-owned businesses indicated that insecurity and restrictions on women’s commercial and economic activities were among their top three concerns,” said the report.

The absence of women from the workforce is being felt by their male colleagues as well.

“The women in our department were among the most professional and provided technical services to our women clients,” said Ghafoor, a supervisor at an agency in Kabul, who did not wish to share his full name or profession fearing reprisal from the Taliban.

“I never had any complaints about them and they provided crucial services which we are not able to compensate for in their absence.”

Ghafoor said none of the women in his department was allowed back to work after the Taliban takeover last year, increasing the workload on the male staff and reducing output.

“There are times we work 12-14 hours to finish the tasks but still can’t reach our goals. It has affected our overall productivity,” he said.

However, women like Samar who were in government jobs are resisting the efforts to replace them. They have mobilised with their co-workers and seeking to negotiate to join their offices back.

“We are trying to campaign with the current leadership but the HR person has told me if I don’t recommend a male relative soon, they would hire someone else and I will automatically be dismissed,” Samar said.

She said she felt humiliated at the prospect of offering a role she trained for years to an unqualified and inexperienced male relative.

Samar added that it was worse for women who had no immediate male guardians.

“One of my colleagues is a widow and her sons are in Iran. Who should she introduce [to take her job]?”

Samar’s monthly salary complemented her husband’s income, which helped pay for their family expenses and their daughter’s education.

“I haven’t paid her school tuition for the past two months. I cannot even afford her book and notebooks,” she said.

She feared her daughter who was in sixth grade may not even get to study the next year due to the Taliban’s ban on high school education for girls.

“In the country where I built my life, my career, my daughter does not even have a future. I feel like we have been buried in a dark hole. I am breathing but I am not alive.”