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Afghanistan schoolgirls: poisoned or mass hysteria?

Wahdat Afghan / Reuters

An Afghan schoolgirl receives treatment at a hospital after allegedly being poisoned in Takhar province May 23, 2012.

KABUL – Over 100 girls from Afghanistan’s northern Jawzjan province in Afghanistan were hospitalized Monday after allegedly being poisoned.  The girls, ages 8 to 22, fell ill while attending class at Meser Abad High School, local officials told NBC News.

More than 300 schoolgirls in the province have allegedly experienced poisoning in the last two weeks.

Local officials blamed the Taliban for the schoolgirls’ poisoning, however, the Taliban have rejected the accusation.

Some speculate that the illnesses could be blamed on mass hysteria linked to fears of a Taliban takeover once the U.S. and international forces withdraw from the country in 2014.

Both the Afghan government and NATO forces have done blood tests on the students after the poisonings, but have found no traces of poison.   

Experts have said that the poisoning scare has all the “earmarks” of mass hysteria. Robert Bartholomew, an expert on mass hysteria, told the AFP that the scare is typical of social panic in other war zones like Kosovo in the past.

 "The tell-tale signs of psychogenic illness in these Afghan outbreaks include the preponderance of schoolgirls; the conspicuous absence of a toxic agent; transient, benign symptoms; rapid onset and recovery; plausible rumors; the presence of a strange odor; and anxiety generated from a wartime backdrop.”  


School girls receive first aid in Jowzjan on July 2.

NBC spoke with Heather Barr, an Afghanistan Researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Kabul, about the incidents and why the education of girls is such a potent symbol of change since the fall of the Taliban.  

Read a Q & A with Barr below:

Why is girls’ education still the subject of the alleged poisoning attacks?
Schoolgirls, their teachers and their schools are a soft target for insurgent groups seeking to terrorize communities and demonstrate the government's inability to protect communities. The Taliban has issued recent statements talking about their commitment to education, but these statements conspicuously do not mention girls' education – and threats and attacks continue.

Why is poison a main method of disruption?
These [alleged] poisonings are very perplexing, primarily because we have yet to see clear scientific evidence of the presence of poison, in spite of testing by [NATO’s] International Security Assistance Force and international organizations. 

Some experts have suggested that these incidents may have a psychological explanation rather than a chemical one. If that is true, it speaks volumes about the trauma and fear school children experience simply going to school every day, due to threats and attacks against schools.

It would also beg many worrying questions about the arrests that have been made in Takhar and the confessions from some of those arrested. [She was referring to the alleged poisoning of students in Afghanistan’s Northeastern Takhar Province]

Whether or not there is poison involved, these incidents are having a devastating effect on girls' education.

Do these attacks against schools have the desired outcome?  Does it disrupt education for girls? Are families frightened or defiant?
I'm afraid that the attacks do have the desired outcome. Many schoolgirls and their families are defiant in the face of threats and attacks, but at the same time half of all girls are not in school, and security is unquestionably the cause of some of these girls being denied education.

What is the Afghan government doing about the attacks?
The government should make public, and share with international experts, any scientific evidence they have regarding the use of poison in these cases. By doing so can they lay to rest questions about whether poison is really involved and gain assistance in prevent future incidents.

Is this situation likely to continue?
Tragically the poisoning incidents seem to be rapidly gaining momentum at the moment. It is urgent that the government respond effectively and find a way to prevent these incidents. And the first steps have to be understanding what poisons – if any – are involved.

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