10 things you did not know about Afghanistan

As all eyes turn to the airport in Kabul and the world is inundated with scenes of desperate people trying to escape a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, it is easy to believe that the time and money invested into the country by the international community over the last 20 years have been for naught. However, it is important to note that since 2001, the country has made significant strides in many sectors. At the same time, these gains are often found in cities and bigger settlements, with positive changes coming more slowly to the countryside. Despite the many challenges the country faces, the achievements would not have been possible without determined Afghans, whose emerging civil society and enthusiastic and educated youth are committed to making their country better.

Here are ten things you might not know about Afghanistan.

1. Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world.

Afghanistan is home to some 38 million people. According to the United Nations Population Fund, Afghanistan has one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the world, with approximately 67 percent of the population under the age of 25. The country’s median age of 19 years makes it one of the youngest in the world.

2. Infant mortality has decreased and life expectancy has increased.

For every 1,000 babies born in Afghanistan in 2019, 60 will die before their fifth birthday. However, in 2000, the mortality rate of children under five was 129 per 1,000 live births, according to the World Bank. The 2019 statistic means that twice the number of Afghan children have a chance of surviving until their fifth birthday than in 2000.

While in 2000, the average life expectancy at birth for the average Afghan was 56 years, it has increased to over 64. And while in 2000 the average number of children per woman was 7.5, by 2019 this number had dropped to 4.3.

3. Access to toilets and clean water has been greatly improved.

UNICEF data shows that while in 2001, just 21.8 percent of the population had access to private latrines, in 2021, more than 50 percent of Afghans did not need to share toilet facilities with other households. Furthermore, in 2001, just 28.2 percent of Afghans had access to improved drinking water sources such as piped water, wells, boreholes, protected springs or packaged or delivered water; by 2020 this number had risen to over 75 percent of Afghans.

4. Thousands of kilometres of roads have been constructed across the country.

In 2001, after years of conflict and instability, Afghanistan had, at maximum, a few hundred kilometres of paved roads. Over the past 20 years, three billion USD were spent on road improvements, and according to Wikipedia, Afghanistan now has 17,903 kilometers of paved roads enabling the movement of goods, services and people throughout the country, reaching to remote areas and creating connections with urban hubs.

5. Great strides have been made in education and literacy, but the gains are tenuous.

In 2001, just 773,000 children attended primary school; by 2018, this number had reached over 6.5 million. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of children in school at all levels has increased from 0.9 million in 2001 to 9.2 million in 2017 - with 39 percent of them girls. By the end of 2003, there were approximately 27,000 teachers in Afghanistan; in 2021, there were 220,000 teachers.

While in 2001 there were almost no girls in schools according to World Bank data, the number of Afghan girls attending first grade peaked in 2011 at 65 percent. However, current indicators show that the education of girls is in decline. By 2015, the number of girls in first grade had fallen to 57 percent, according to Time Magazine. Statistics from UNICEF show an estimated 4.2 million children out of school in Afghanistan, including more than 2.2 million girls.

According to data from UNESCO, the literacy rate among the population aged 15 years and older was just 28 percent in 2000. By 2010, it had risen to 31.4 percent, and eight years later, 43 percent of Afghans were able to read and write. Current literacy rates reflect the disparity between the genders: only 37 percent of teenage girls can read and write, compared to 66 percent of adolescent boys, according to Human Rights Watch.

6. The majority of the population lives within two hours of a health care facility, and maternal deaths and newborn mortality rates are down.

Afghanistan’s health care system has been steadily improving over the last several years, with improvements to the level of health care coverage throughout the country and increases in the number of female health staff. In 2002, the World Bank evidenced 496 functioning health care facilities, with 581 female health workers, including doctors, midwives, pharmacists, and nurses. In 2018, there were a total of 3,135 functioning health care facilities, which ensured access to health care within two hours for almost 87 percent of the population, according to the World Health Organisation. Twenty years ago, just nine percent of Afghans lived within two hours of a health care facility providing minimum primary and secondary care.

According to USAID, thanks to maternal health interventions, maternal deaths decreased to an estimated 638 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017, cutting the rate by more than half compared to 2000. Just 12 percent of births were attended by skilled health staff in 2000, whereas by 2017, this number had jumped to 59 percent of deliveries. The newborn mortality rate fell from 53 to 23 per 1,000 live births from 2003 to 2018.

7. Accessibility of mobile phones, internet, and traditional and social media is on the rise.

There were just over 27 million mobile phone connections in Afghanistan in January 2021, covering 68.7 percent of the total population. In comparison, just 35 percent of Afghans had cellular service in 2010.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of internet users increased by almost one million, according to Datareportal; in January 2021, there were 8.64 million internet users in Afghanistan. There were also 4.4 million social media users in January 2021, representing 11.2 percent of Afghanistan’s population and an increase of 800,000 over 2020 numbers. As for traditional media, government statistics showed that there are 96 television channels, 65 radio stations, and 911 print media outlets in Kabul, as well as 107 television channels, 284 radio stations, and 416 print media outlets in other provinces. In 2019, there were 1,879 active media outlets in Afghanistan.

8. Afghan women have seen substantial gains in their empowerment.

Afghan women and girls have made substantial gains over the past two decades. They have greater access to life-saving health care, and work as legislators, judges, teachers, health workers, civil servants, journalists, and business and civil society leaders. As many as 3.5 million girls are enrolled in school, out of roughly 9 million students, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Thanks to a constitutional amendment, 27 percent of all parliamentary seats are reserved for women. By law, 25 percent of seats in provincial and district councils are now reserved for women. Nearly half of the 9,708 elected community development council members across the country are women. Women serve as ministers, deputy ministers, and ambassadors, and comprise about 28 percent of employees in civil society organisations. The presence of women in the media also increased significantly since 2001, according to the SIGAR report.

The BBC reports a large increase in female police offices - from only 180 in 2005 to 3,560 by 2019 - as well as an increase in the proportion female judges from five percent to 13 percent from 2007 to 2018.

There are also more women working in the education sector. By 2018, about one-third of Afghanistan's teachers were women. The number of female students at government universities has increased nearly sevenfold between 2002 and 2018, more than the increase in that period for male students, according to Afghan government figures.

9. Economy – promising start and slowing indicators

According to the World Bank, which tracked an influx of aid since 2002, Afghanistan sustained rapid economic growth and improvements against important social indicators for more than a decade. Annual growth averaged 9.4 percent between 2003 and 2012, driven by a booming aid-driven services sector and strong agricultural growth. Since then, a range of factors have slowed the country’s economic and social progress, with the economy growing annually by only 2.5 percent between 2015 and 2020. Gains against development indicators have also slowed or even reversed in some cases.

In 2020, 47.3 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line, according to Asian Development Bank statistics. This was a 38 percent increase from 2011 and 2012.

10. Humanitarian situation is deteriorating

According to UN OCHA, half of all Afghans (more than 18.4 million) are in need of humanitarian aid, including 10 million children who need immediate assistance to survive. Fourteen million people in Afghanistan – one-third of the population – are facing food insecurity, the World Food Program reports. That includes two million children who are already malnourished.

Almost 2.6 million Afghans are already registered abroad as refugees, 85 percent of whom are in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, says UNHCR. According to the UN, there are some 5.5 million Afghans displaced within the country because of violence, political unrest, poverty, the impacts of climate change, and a lack of economic opportunity. UN OCHA says that nearly 550,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since the start of this year. A majority of Afghans remain displaced within the country, and 80 percent of those fleeing are women and children.

The UN expects the humanitarian situation in the country to worsen due to a severe drought, the onset of winter, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Petr Stefan, PIN Communication Officer