Afghan women refugees in Pakistan: A vulnerable and displaced population
More than 200,000 people crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan since the Pakistani government ordered 1.7 million people to leave or face arrest and deportation.
The majority rushed to the border in the past several days as the November 1 deadline approached and police began to open up dozens of holding centres to detain arrested Afghans.
Pakistan says the deportations are to protect its "welfare and security" after a sharp rise in attacks, which the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan.
Such an exodus spells troubles for Afghan women, adding further to their misery, especially in the Taliban stronghold. But, staying in Pakistan means facing neglect and isolation.
"Afghan women refugees face significant barriers to accessing education and employment in Pakistan. However, what makes their lives even more challenging is their cultural and social isolation"
Pakistan has hosted Afghan refugees for nearly four decades, starting from the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s — with a significant portion of this population comprising Afghan women and children.
Over the years, millions of Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan due to the ongoing conflict, political instability, and economic hardships in Afghanistan.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 3.7 million Afghans residing in Pakistan, of which only 1.4 million are registered.
These refugees fled their war-torn homeland to move to a country that is culturally and linguistically different, aggravating their already precarious situation, especially for Afghan women.
Living as refugees in Pakistan not only strips them of many legal rights, such as education and employment but also results in their cultural and social isolation from the host society.
Afghan women refugees face significant barriers to accessing education and employment in Pakistan. However, what makes their lives even more challenging is their cultural and social isolation.
They often live in refugee camps or slum areas, and even those residing in urban areas are often forbidden by their patriarchs from interacting with local people.
The hostility and deeply rooted racism of some segments of the Pakistani population also contribute to the alienation of Afghan women.
This isolation often leads to a higher incidence of crimes committed against them, both within refugee camps and during their migration from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
"Many women are at risk of being kidnapped or becoming victims of sex trafficking, harassment, and rape, especially if they are travelling alone or with children"
As hundreds of refugees continue to cross the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan daily in search of better lives, many women are at risk of being kidnapped or becoming victims of sex trafficking, harassment, and rape, especially if they are travelling alone or with children.
Most of these women are unregistered in Pakistan, which means that there is little investigation of the crimes or prosecution of the perpetrators.
The fact that they are refugees and unregistered in Pakistan is often the leading factor contributing to the prevalence of crimes committed against Afghan women.
The violence Afghan women face is not limited to external threats; they are often victims of abuse from their own community and patriarchs too.
However, this abuse often goes unreported due to the negligible social and legal protection provided to refugee women.
Similarly, a majority of Afghan women residing in Pakistan do not have identity documents which hinders them from reporting any crimes committed against them because it might result in them being deported.
Many Afghan women and girls are exploited and forced into labour in rural areas across Pakistan, with their wages collected by their household patriarchs or Afghan labour contractors who in turn underpay and harass them.
This financial exploitation further exacerbates the vulnerable circumstances in which they find themselves. Afghan women living as refugees in Pakistan face daily racism, harassment, and discrimination, making their mobility around cities negligible.
This results in them becoming entirely dependent on male figures in their community, be it a husband, son, or brother. This dependence limits their progress and makes them vulnerable to violence committed by men in their own families or communities.
Afghan women thus face multiple forms of oppression, they are discriminated against not only on the base of race, and class but also gender.
This multilayered marginalisation of Afghan women further pushes them to the periphery of a society that is already hostile to women.
Afghan women refugees in Pakistan, particularly the unregistered ones, have no access to education, healthcare, banking services, or even SIM cards.
They lack the right to rent a house or pursue higher education. Even those who are documented refugees face obstacles in accessing higher education and formal employment opportunities, leaving them with limited choices, often resorting to vocational jobs like sewing and stitching.
Even educated Afghan women living in urban areas are confined to small social circles within their own communities. The legal and cultural constraints in Pakistan hinder their progress, preventing them from contributing to the workforce or accessing higher education.
This exclusion of women from public life ultimately deprives them of a community and solidarity among other women, leading to them being more susceptible to harassment and violence.
With the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, Pakistan has witnessed a surge in the number of Afghan migrants. According to the government of Pakistan, nearly 600,000 new Afghan refugees arrived in Pakistan since August 2021.
"Many women, such as journalists and human rights activists, escaped to Pakistan to save their lives, and expelling them from Pakistan not only signifies serious human rights violations but also puts several lives at risk under the rule of a brutal government in Afghanistan"
This influx includes a significant number of women who escaped the Taliban's oppressive policies regarding women's rights. Additionally, many women activists fled to Pakistan to escape the new persecution laws implemented by the Taliban government.
The Taliban's policies include bans on secondary and university education for women, restrictions on women working for NGOs and the United Nations, and restrictions on women's mobility, including travel without a male relative. They have been banned from public life activities such as going to parks or gyms.
These restrictions have led to a large number of women seeking refuge in neighbouring countries like Pakistan.
However, the recent announcement from the Pakistani Ministry of Interior has caused significant distress and uncertainty among the Afghan refugee population.
This not only impacts all Afghan refugees living in Pakistan but also endangers the lives of millions of Afghan women.
Forcefully sending back a large number of women to a country that has faced worldwide criticism for its anti-women laws is not only inhumane but also places a vast number of women in a very vulnerable position.
Many women, such as journalists and human rights activists, escaped to Pakistan to save their lives, and expelling them from Pakistan not only signifies serious human rights violations but also puts several lives at risk under the rule of a brutal government in Afghanistan.
For decades, Afghan women refugees have endured a life of complete invisibility from social life, bearing the brunt of abuse from both within and outside their community.
Their status as refugees, combined with other factors such as race and gender, places them at significant risk of violence and marginalisation.
Ayesha Arif is an English Literature graduate and feminist activist based in Pakistan
Follow her on X: @Aaysaa_