Fri 17 Feb 2023
Reports that fighters have threatened those issuing birth control medicines come as Afghan midwives and activists warn of impact on women’s health and rights
Taliban fighters have stopped the sale of contraceptives in two of Afghanistan’s main cities, claiming their use by women is a western conspiracy to control the Muslim population.
The Guardian has learned that the Taliban has been going door to door, threatening midwives and ordering pharmacies to clear their shelves of all birth control medicines and devices.
“They came to my store twice with guns and threatened me not to keep contraceptive pills for sale. They are regularly checking every pharmacy in Kabul and we have stopped selling the products,” said one store owner in the city.
A veteran midwife, who did not want to be named, said she had been threatened several times. She said she was told by a Taliban commander: “You are not allowed to go outside and promote the western concept of controlling population and this is unnecessary work.”
Other pharmacists in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif confirmed that they have been ordered not to stock any birth control medicines.
“Items such as birth control pills and Depo-Provera injections are not allowed to be kept in the pharmacy since the start of this month, and we are too afraid to sell the existing stock,” another shop owner in Kabul said.
It is the latest attack on women’s rights by the Taliban who, since coming to power in August 2021, have ended higher education for girls, closed universities to young women, forced women out of their jobs and restricted their ability to leave their homes. Restricting contraceptives will be a significant blow in a country with an already fragile healthcare system.
One in every 14 Afghan women dies of causes related to pregnancy and it is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to give birth.
The Taliban’s Ministry of Public Health in Kabul has not issued any official statement on the issue and the UNFPA representative in Afghanistan did not respond to requests for comment.
Taliban fighters patrolling in the streets in Kabul told sources that “contraceptive use and family planning is a western agenda”.
For Zainab, 17, who was married two years ago in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the ban on contraceptives was a shock when she was told by her midwife last week.
Zainab, who has an 18-month-old daughter, is worried. “I was secretly using contraceptives to avoid immediate pregnancy. I want to raise my daughter well with proper health and education facilities but it shattered my dreams when the midwife last week informed me that she had no contraceptive pills and injections to offer me,” she said.
“I left education to get married and I don’t want my daughter’s fate to be the same as mine. I seek a different future for my daughter. The last hope to plan my life has ended,” said Zainab.
Shabnam Nasimi, an Afghan-born social activist in the UK, said: “The Taliban’s control not only over women’s human right to work and study, but now also over their bodies, is outrageous.
“It is a fundamental human right to have access to family planning and contraception services free of coercion. Such autonomy and agency are essential components of women’s rights such as the right to equality, non-discrimination, life, sexual health, reproductive health, and other basic human rights.”
Another midwife, who fled Kabul after death threats from the Taliban, is in daily contact with her colleagues who have remained. “The contraceptive ban would drastically affect the already deteriorating reproductive health situation in the country,” she said. “I fear the gains we made in the past decade would be lost after this move.”
Fatimah, a midwife in Kabul, said: “We are living in a suffocating
Even before the Taliban came to power, a 2021 Human Rights Watch report said the most basic information on maternal health and family planning was not available to most Afghan women.
“What emerged is a picture of a system that is increasingly unaffordable to the estimated 61% to 72% of Afghan women who live in poverty, and one in which women often have more children than they want because of lack of access to modern contraception; face risky pregnancies because of lack of care; and undergo procedures that could be done more safely with access to and capacity to use more modern techniques,” the report revealed.
Activists called on the Taliban to abide by international agreements which set out universal access to sexual and reproductive health care.
“Access to contraception and the right to family planning is not only a matter of human rights; it is also central to women’s empowerment and lifting a country out of poverty,” said Nasimi.
“It is well established that the Qur’an does not prohibit the use of contraception, nor does it forbid couples from having control over their pregnancies or the number of children they want to have. The Taliban have no right to restrict access to contraception based on their own interpretation of Islam.”
The Qur’an supports women having a gap between pregnancies to raise their children.
However Ustad Faridoon, a Taliban official based in Kandahar, told the Guardian he did not support a total ban.
“Contraceptive use is sometimes medically necessary for maternal health. It is permissible in the Sharia to use contraceptive methods if there is a risk to the mother’s life. Therefore, a complete ban on contraceptives is not right.”
Some reproductive rights experts in Afghanistan contacted by the Guardian were not willing to comment due to security concerns.