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Afghanistan

Fatal Afghan Shooting Highlights Risks For Female Health Workers

An Afghan woman holds a child as a health worker administers a polio vaccine. Polio-eradication can be dangerous work in some parts of Afghanistan, because some religious extremists have condemned it.
An Afghan woman holds a child as a health worker administers a polio vaccine. Polio-eradication can be dangerous work in some parts of Afghanistan, because some religious extremists have condemned it.
By Frud Bezhan and Ahmad Hanayish
Anisa, a volunteer Afghan health worker, had just left her home and was on her way to work when two armed men on motorcycles zipped past her.

The gunmen shot the 20-year-old student, who worked as a village polio-vaccination worker, at least six times in the abdomen. Anisa was whisked to a local hospital in her hometown of Kohistan, in the eastern Kapisa Province, but died shortly after being admitted.

The Taliban has denied involvement, but suspicion has nevertheless fallen on the militant group. The Taliban has in the past been accused of undermining the polio-immunization campaign on the basis that it is part of a Western plot to harm the Afghan population, and has a long history of carrying out violent acts against women.

There are reasons to believe Anisa's work, or even the fact that she was working at all, might have played a part in her killing.

Anisa's death, which occurred on December 1, came just a day after she survived another attempt on her life. She was walking on the street when unknown gunmen fired at her.

According to Afghan media reports, Anisa had received several threatening phone calls in the days leading up to her death warning her to stop work.

Safura Kohistani, the director of the provincial Department of Women's Affairs in Kapisa, says many Afghan women who work outside their home, which is still rare many places across Afghanistan, are often targeted.

Death Threats

Kohistani maintains that women often receive death threats via phone calls or night letters, a written threat delivered during the evening, warning them to stop working or risk being targeted.

"Women are extremely worried about this," she says. "Women who are working as teachers, or for the government, or for civil society are scared that if they work such a fate might befall them too."

Kohistani has condemned the perpetrators of the killing as "cowards" and has called on authorities to do more to enforce a 2009 law on eliminating violence against women, which rights activists say is still only periodically enforced.

Kohistani says women who suffer from violence almost never receive justice. Even if their cases go to trial, she says, the majority result in the acquittal of the perpetrators, the dropping of charges to less serious crimes, convictions with shorter sentences, or the female victims themselves being accused of "moral crimes" for making private matters public.

Women's Affairs Minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar said last month that cases of "extreme or brutal violence" against women had increased this year. She said her ministry reported some 3,500 cases of violence against women in the first six months of this year alone.

According to Kohistani, there have been previous instances of violence against women in Kapisa, but that Anisa's death is a first.

"There have been cases [of violence against women] stemming from domestic issues," she says. "But this is the first time we have seen a politically-motivated case where a girl who was at school and working on a polio-vaccination program was targeted."

Anisa was working on a polio-immunization program funded by the United Nations, which along with the World Health Organization takes a leading role in eliminating the crippling and deadly disease.

Polio is spread when people eat food or drink water contaminated by feces. Afghanistan, along with Pakistan and Nigeria, is just one of three countries where polio is endemic, according to the United Nations.

With just some two-thirds of children in Kapisa vaccinated against polio, volunteers are working toward the goal of ensuring that all the province's children are immunized.

'Un-Islamic' Vaccinations

Taliban factions, particularly inside Pakistan, have condemned the UN immunization drive and their threats of violence have stopped programs in Taliban-controlled areas in Pakistan's northwest and even some border areas inside Afghanistan.

Opposition from religious extremists is seen as a key reason for the failure of polio-eradication programs in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Local Taliban factions in Pakistan have issued fatwas and imposed a "ban" on the antipolio campaign, calling it a Western plot to sterilize Muslim populations.

Another myth often spread by religious extremists is that vaccinations are "un-Islamic" and an attempt to prevent the will of God.

In a bid to stop the antipolio campaign, the Pakistani Taliban have kidnapped, beaten, and assassinated health officials.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier this year blamed Taliban resistance for the increase of polio cases in Afghanistan.

Through an antipolio campaign involving thousands of volunteers and a number of international agencies, Afghanistan had almost wiped out the deadly disease.

In 2010, the Afghan government registered only 25 polio cases. But that figure tripled to 76 last year.

Karzai called on the Taliban to allow teams of vaccinators to administer antipolio drops to children in areas under their control.

In a message addressed to the militants, he said: "Those who stand in the way of vaccination are the true enemies of our children's future."

Written and reported by Frud Bezhan with additional reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Hanayish in Kabul

Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix Arizona USA
December 08, 2012 12:39
They should get some real education instead of studying the Koran in the madrasa. These ignorant people think that they are actually saving their society from the West. I guess you just can't fix stupid.
In Response

by: watching7 from: USA
December 08, 2012 15:51
You sure got that right, about the stupid part.
The real shame is the cowards target their own women and children. (As well as every one else's!).
Really makes one wonder if they are all gay and hate women?
Or just the biggest cowards on the planet.
The real crime is the Fathers and brothers that are supposed to honor and protect the women and kids, seem to be the worst cowards of the whole backwards area.

by: Anonymous
December 08, 2012 19:13
so, no vaccination! (sounds very interesting)

stop supporting fanatics! some positive news about the Muslim world?

as the spanish proverb says:
"cría cuervos y te sacaràn los ojos."
roughly: don't support, feed, breed, "grow" or create "ravens", animals, people, whoever, and they/some will "tear out your eyes".

Hamas created by Israel, Taliban by the U.S., Wahabism in Saudi Arabia supported by the U.S., radical settlers in Israel supported by some people in the U.S. and some people in the Israeli government, pakistani terrorists supported by some organizations in Pakistan, some Muslim radicals in European nations supported by radical organizations in Turkey, Algeria, Tunesia, etc. etc. etc.

Khalid Meshal for instance said - well just recently - he would never recognize Israel nor make any territorial concessions. (at least according to some news agencies).
great news for the radicals on many sides.
so, why again give financial and military support to governments and organizations who support radicals?
the same obviously applies to other conflicts. afghanistan faces so many challenges and some guys come up with anti-polio campaigns.
probably, some cannot even read the quran properly. haven't read anything against vaccination. maybe they have just added a few surat.

is this really possible that only a few people can create so much hate and eventually (as some thinkers like kierkegaard even expected) destroy the world?

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