UN News spoke with Samantha Mort, Chief of Communications, Advocacy and Civic Engagement at UNICEF Afghanistan, who assured that all offices remain open and warehouses full.
About 22.8 million people across the country face food insecurity, she explained, adding that they cannot access affordable or nutritious food.
Of the 38 million people living in Afghanistan, about 14 million children are food insecure.
For Ms Mort, “there is no childhood” today in Afghanistan. “It’s all about survival and getting through the next day.”
“The Perfect Storm”
She painted a horrible picture of poor families in which parents don’t eat three meals a day, food portions decrease and people wake up not knowing where the next meal is coming from.
“It’s that level of food insecurity,” the UNICEF official said.
Worsened by drought, poor harvest and rising food prices, she called the threatening crisis “the perfect storm in Afghanistan”.
And at the start of a typically frosty cold winter, Ms. Mort said snow would cut away rural areas in the mountains.
“UNICEF is very, very concerned about what we are seeing about 3.2 million children who are acutely malnourished, and 1.1 million children who are at risk of dying from severe, acute malnutrition. unless we intervene with treatment, ”she warned.
Last week, the UNICEF official visited health clinics in the western part of the country.
At one, the doctor shared records showing a 50 percent increase in cases of severe malnutrition while another revealed a 30 percent increase.
Despite the increase, Ms. Mort explained that the crisis did not begin on August 15 but that the country has experienced some insecurity or conflict for the past 40 years.
“But because of the drought … poor harvest … rising food prices, as many women have been asked to stay home since August 15, many families have lost their main source of income,” she said.
Mrs. Mort recalled that she had asked the mother of a severely malnourished baby if she was breastfeeding and was told that despite that she had no milk. A doctor in the room asked the woman if she was eating. The woman replied that most days, she drank only a glass of black tea with a piece of bread in it.
“It’s no wonder she can’t breastfeed because she’s malnourished herself. And I think that’s a story that has spread all over the country, “said the UNICEF official.
The same mother then brought her 4-year-old child, wearing an oversized coat.
“You would expect the 4-year-old to look around and wonder about the strangers in the room. This little girl was sitting leaning on her jacket in the same position as her mother took her down. And she just stared at the floor. Her head was bowed. She had no energy, ”recalled Mrs. Mort.
UNICEF predicts that food will run out halfway through winter Samantha Mort
Removing the young girl’s coat, her arm was “no thicker than a broom handle” and she was so malnourished that her hair fell out and her cheeks were hollow. At 4 years old, she weighed about 20 pounds.
“Severe, severe malnutrition means you may die if you are not treated. And that means if we don’t treat them, they will die.”, said Mrs. Mort.
Due to the drought and resulting poor harvest, UNICEF predicts that food will run out halfway through winter.
The agency is doubling its number of nutrition counselors and mobile health and nutrition teams who can go into rural communities to help the most hard-to-reach children.
Ms. Mort stressed that the nutrition advisors are often recruited locally so that communities can trust them.
“They are very passionate … energetic and … uplifting,” she explained showing positive interactions between them and the mothers who come for help.
“They come up with creative solutions. They use what’s in the community. They share resources,” she said.
These professionals are typically also young, educated women. Ms. Mort recalled meeting a female doctor in her early 30s who ran a medical clinic with 20 employees, 18 of whom were women.
The doctor found it “extremely uplifting to see young professional women working in Afghanistan … among all the challenges”, recalling that they “will not stop talking about their work, about their patients”.
During her visits, Mrs. Mort mostly observed feelings of uncertainty.
“I think people are unsure, they don’t know what the winter holds, what the de facto authorities will do next. They do not know whether the international community will deliver these funds so that the health care system and the education system can recover. It seems like everyone is in some shape, ”she said.
For the UNICEF official, it is “absolutely critical” that the international community understands that Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.
“This is not the time for political brimsmanship. People in Afghanistan are dying, and they need our support. Humanitarian aid is the ultimate expression of human solidarity.” she said.
“When you have nothing … struggle … feel forgotten …[and] you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, humanitarian aid is coming to your door and you are part of a much bigger family ”.
Health sector in crisis
Ms. Mort recalled a conversation she had last week with the director of Children’s Hospital Indira Gandhi in Kabul, who told her that sometimes he has three babies in a single bed because so many district and regional clinics can no longer function.
In addition, people living in rural areas have to take their babies to the capital. But because poverty limits their ability to travel, they wait so long that their children become very ill.
“It’s too late. And they die because the families didn’t have the money to bring them in sooner. We see families despairing more and more,” she recalled.
If children are not in school, they are much more likely to be recruited by an armed group, or fall into early marriage or be exploited in some way. Samantha Mort
UNICEF has noticed an increase in “negative coping mechanisms,” where people become so desperate that they start doing things they wouldn’t normally consider, like taking a child out of school or selling them for an early marriage – sometimes babies even six months old. .
Education for girls
Currently, Ms. Mort said teenage girls were not invited back to school.
“We have about one million high school girls sitting at home, denied their right to education,” she said. “We want to see every child in school. If children are not in school, they are much more likely to be recruited by an armed group, or to fall into early marriage or to be exploited in some way ”.
Even before the current Taliban rule, 70 percent of Afghanistan’s economy was supported by international aid.
“With that help frozen, health workers and teachers are not paid. If you imagine a country that does not have a functioning education system and does not have a functioning health system, you will understand how quickly everything is collapsing,” she explained.
Last week at a new school, the UN official spoke with a class of girls who had never had an education.
When she asked if they had a message to share with the world, a seven-year-old child raised her hand and wondered if the world could keep peace in Afghanistan for her to continue going to school.
“I just thought, God loves you. It was so spontaneous, just keep the peace in my country so that I can continue to learn, ”recalled Mrs. Mort.