(October 2001) Severe drought, more than two decades of conflict, and years of repressive policies that have ravaged Afghanistan’s economy and deprived its people — mainly women and girls — of their basic human rights have created major uncertainties about population measures and estimates.

The current military response to the terrorism in the United States has not only compounded that uncertainty but has also created a volatile situation for Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors: Iran [PDF: 400KB], Pakistan [PDF: 467KB], Tajikistan [PDF: 389KB], Uzbekistan [PDF: 457KB], and Turkmenistan [PDF: 392KB].

According to the latest estimates by the United Nations, Afghanistan’s population, which numbered some 14.3 million in the mid-1970s, had increased to some 21.7 million by the turn of the century. Most estimates place the number of deaths in the war that followed the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at more than 1 million. That war, in addition to prolonged drought and threats of starvation, caused huge movements of people from rural areas into cities, and from Afghanistan into Iran, Pakistan, and other neighboring countries.

The conflict has been especially harsh on women and children. Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world where men are expected to outlive women. Life expectancy for women is a meager 44 years, compared with 46 years for men, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). Women have an average of six children — the highest birth rate in Asia, according to PRB — and they face a high risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth. According to a 2001 estimate from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the maternal mortality ratio is 820 deaths for every 100,000 live births.

One of the major casualties of the unending conflict and repression has been education. UNICEF estimated the adult literacy rate at an astounding 6 percent for women in 1980 and 16 percent in 1995. By comparison, the male adult literacy rate was 30 percent in 1980 and 46 percent in 1995.


Health Measures for Afghanistan, Less Developed, and More Developed Countries at a Glance

Total Fertility Rate* Life Expectancy for Women Female Adult Literacy Rate 1995 Infant Mortality Rate 1998** % of population with Access to Safe Water 1990-1998
Afghanistan 6 44 16 165 6
Less Developed Countries 3.2 66 61 64 72
More Developed Countries 1.6 79 6

*Total fertility rate refers to the average number of children born to women.

**Infant mortality rate refers to deaths by age 1 per 1,000 live births.

Sources: United Nations, The State of the World’s Children 2000 (New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 2001); and Carl Haub and Diana Cornelius, 2001 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2001).

Yvette Collymore is senior editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


For UN demographic data by country/region, see www.un.org/esa/population/publications/publications.htm

For more on the situation of women in Afghanistan, visit the United Nations Population Fund at www.unfpa.org

See UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2000 for education and health measures at www.unicef.org/sowc00/