Gul Meena Hotak was on her regular rounds, going door-to-door giving polio vaccinations in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, when she heard gunshots.
The 22-year-old’s immediate concern was for the safety of her friend Negina and other colleagues nearby. “Negina and my supervisor were in a neighbourhood close by when a gunman approached and shot at them. My supervisor escaped with gunshot injuries, but Negina was killed on the spot,” Hotak said.
Traumatised and afraid, Hotak went back to her office where she learned other colleagues had been targeted by a separate bomb attack. Two more female polio workers – Samina and Basira, who like Negina, were known by only one name – died in Jalalabad city.
After the killings, vital polio campaigns across the province were put on hold, and remain suspended in at least three districts including Jalalabad city. “The situation in the south and eastern provinces has been problematic for many years because of the bans imposed by the Taliban as well as the Islamic State, which briefly controlled parts of the country. They didn’t permit the door-to-door vaccination campaigns,” Merjan Rasekh, head of public awareness of the ministry of health’s polio eradication programme, said.
Afghanistan is, alongside Pakistan, one of the last two countries in the world where polio is endemic.
The Taliban, Rasekh said, were not against vaccinations as such but did mistrust the campaigns, fearing that the polio workers are being used to gather intelligence on their whereabouts. “But the recent killings of female workers were shocking and unprecedented in the history of our immunisation activities,” he said.
The increase in violence has been aimed at women active in public life. In Jalalabad city there had been six killings in the four months before the polio workers were targeted. “We had received no threats or warning [ahead of the attack], but violence and assassinations are becoming part of our everyday life. They are killing female journalists, activists every day,” said Hotak, who now fears for her life.
Even without the security issues, female workers in Afghanistan face many challenges. In a deeply conservative society, working women are breaking stereotypes and cultural norms. “We get harassed, abused; some use abusive language. There are times when people kicked us out of their neighbourhoods, but we continue our job,” Hotak said.
As a result of the killings, many Afghan women have quit their jobs. “There is tremendous pressure on women (from their families), and many of our volunteers are unwilling to rejoin the campaigns. At least half of them are now afraid of stepping out of their homes,” said Hotak. Enikass TV, a media outlet in the eastern province, asked its female employees to temporarily stop coming into work after four female staff were murdered.
Forcing women out of public life would, undoubtedly, have an adverse impact on society, in this case on the campaign against polio, Rasekh said. “In the Afghan context, the female workers are among the most important frontline workers. Because culturally, Afghan mothers in conservative households are not allowed to go outside or allow a male worker inside the house to vaccinate their children. But female vaccinators can directly enter the households and even convince caregivers who may have doubts about the vaccines.”
With fewer women willing to volunteer or work in the campaign, the polio department fears a rise in cases in the coming months and a reversal of years of progress. The country has already had 56 cases – the highest in 20 years – during the pandemic lockdowns. “We only had two cases in the eastern region in 2020, thanks to the efforts of the many women polio workers. But now we are very concerned about an increase in cases if women are not able to resume due to security problems,” said Dr Jan Mohammad, a coordinator for the national campaign.
But despite the challenges, some refuse to step back. “Yes, I am scared, but I can’t give up now because it is a matter of life and death for these children,” said Hotak, who is determined to return to work as soon as the campaign resumes. “If we leave the country to the hands of the insurgents, they will destroy it.”
US gymnast Simone Biles received immense support from Americans this week after announcing she would not be competing in the Team USA final, nor the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, due to personal mental health concerns. At the same time, the 24-year-old has received backlash from many individuals who viewed her pull-out as weak.
Aaron Reitz, deputy attorney general for Texas, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue an apology to Biles, and recant a statement in which he panned the record-setting US gymnast as a “national embarrassment.”
“In a moment of frustration and disappointment, I opined on subjects for which I am not adequately versed. That was an error. I can’t imagine what Simone Biles has gone through,” Reitz claimed. “Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time.”
“I apologize to her, and wish her well,” the deputy AG concluded, emphasizing that his “personal social media comments” do not represent the views of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nor the Office of the Attorney General.
Reitz’s since-deleted tweet against Biles, who was born in Texas and still resides in the Lone Star State, quoted another post that applauded the 1996 Olympic performance of Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug, one of the US’ “Magnificent Seven,” severely injured her ankle during the first half of the vault competition, but refused to bow out of the event and ultimately led her team to win the US’ first gold medal in women’s gymnastics.
“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Reitz said in his quote tweet.
Aaron Reitz is the deputy attorney general for legal strategy under AG @KenPaxtonTX.
This tweet, in which he calls fellow Texan Simone Biles a “national embarrassment,” came outside of work hours but he often tweets hot takes between 9a-5p.
The deputy AG’s attempt at using Strug’s story to chastise Biles fell flat, as the two-time Olympian threw her support behind the 24-year-old on Tuesday.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that Biles is no stranger to performing with adversity. When the US Women’s Gymnastics team took home gold at the 2018 World Championships in Qatar, Biles dominated in nearly every competition, despite intense stomach pains from what was later confirmed to be a kidney stone.
Despite her pull-outs this year, Biles has continued to root for her fellow Team USA gymnasts. She also expressed in a Wednesday social media post that “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.
The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.
There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.
These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.
Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.
The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”
This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.
Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.
Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.
“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”
Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.
There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.