Afghanistan’s girls and women are showing “bravery” in the face of real “fears and pressures” following the formation of the new, de facto authorities in Afghanistan,  according to a UNICEF member of staff, one of the few westerners to remain in Kabul.

Following an announcement by the Taliban that boys could return to secondary school — while making no reference to a return date for girls in secondary school — anxiety and uncertainty stalk the one million girls affected by this omission. 

UNICEF’s Chief of Communications in Afghanistan, Sam Mort, spoke to the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications at the UN, Melissa Fleming, as part of the podcast series, Awake at Night.  

“UNICEF stayed in Afghanistan because that is what we do. We’re here before, during and after an emergency and, at the moment, around half the country is in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including 10 million children.

If UNICEF isn’t here to protect them, to give them medicine, vaccinate them, to give them the nourishment that they so desperately need, to help them recover from the atrocities that they’ve seen, then who is going to do that? It was an easy decision to stay for the organization, and for me personally.

The speed and the scale of the Taliban takeover has had a huge impact on us and our operations. Most of our national staff are working from home until the Taliban can give us assurances about their security, particularly that our female national staff can travel safely and do their work without threat.

As a result, we are not operating at capacity; we’re not reaching all the children we need to be helping. But, in recent weeks, roads and airports have opened up so, slowly, slowly, we are beginning to resume our work and we are hopeful that we will have all staff back in the offices soon. With a complex humanitarian crisis looming and winter around the corner, time is of the essence. 

One of the worst places on earth to be a child

UNICEF's Sam Mort meets a child patient at a hospital in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

© UNICEF/Omid Fazel

UNICEF’s Sam Mort meets a child patient at a hospital in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has long been one of the worst places on earth to be a child and in recent months, it’s become a much darker place so it’s important that the eyes and ears of the world remain focused on the most vulnerable and how best to help them.

UNICEF works with a lot of young people and, since I arrived in Afghanistan a year ago, I have been struck by their energy, optimism and determination to forge forward, particularly in their desire for education. It’s not easy, especially for young women who in their desire to learn and seek new opportunities confront daily threats, hardships and challenges.

Their confidence, the pluckiness, is remarkable. I don’t think I was expecting that. I see a bravery in Afghanistan’s girls and women that I haven’t seen anywhere else, because the fears and pressures are real and they acknowledge them, and they move forward anyway.

When I asked one young woman who we’ve been working with in the last few weeks, how she was doing she said, “I’m still breathing but I’m trapped. This is a nightmare”.

She told me: ‘Sam, I was, I was just finishing high school and I was about to start university. Everything I wanted to do, all my dreams have just stopped.”

Unfulfilled potential

A UN-supported polio worker in Afghanistan administers a polio vaccine to a young child (file).

UNICEF/Celeste Hibbe

A UN-supported polio worker in Afghanistan administers a polio vaccine to a young child (file).

As a foreigner, you have to be very careful about saying, “Oh, they haven’t just stopped, you know, they’ll start again,” because this is Afghanistan and the Taliban has taken over and everybody is in ‘wait-and-see’ mode. Nobody can predict what’s going to happen. 

With all the young people that I’ve been speaking to, including young men and boys, the greatest service I can do for them is to listen, to understand and to talk to them a little bit about their mental health as well as what they can do on a daily basis to keep themselves busy, but stay pragmatic and focused on their future. 

UNICEF is such a hopeful, forward looking organization. We try to work with young people to give them a platform to express themselves, realise their dreams, inspire one another and connect. Right now, though, that feels very difficult in Afghanistan.

So, what keeps me awake at night?  It is the unfulfilled potential of young people, particularly young women, that is difficult.”

Listen to the audio interview here.