RTÉ's Foreign Editor Eimear Lowe is in Afghanistan, where she will be visiting UNICEF's operations in Kabul and Herat as aid agencies warn that the country is on a knife edge following the Taliban takeover last summer.
International Women's Day has never been a big event in my calendar. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate its value or realise its significance to many women around the globe. But for me, it was a day for platitudes and dismissive acknowledgement; it just didn't feel personal. But this year it does.
While Afghanistan has a rich, varied and very ancient culture, it's vastly different to what we in the West perceive as normal. Travelling here feels, in many ways, like stepping into a parallel universe, a universe where women do not exist. Of course, there are women here. The population of 38 million is evidence of that. But their mark on this country is very faint.
Travelling through the capital, Kabul, as a backseat passenger, I see throngs of people everywhere but almost all of them are male. Hundreds of men of all ages. Some of them in the traditional attire of baggy cotton trousers and long tunics, some wearing Western clothes, and others a mixture of both. They go about their business - chatting with friends, striding with purpose, traversing the tangle of traffic.
It's all very normal, except that there are very few women. And I become obsessed with finding those that have made it onto the streets. I catch glimpses of them here and there. Usually in pairs or with children. Very occasionally on their own. It becomes like a game of 'Where’s Wally’ - only in this case it’s 'Where are the Women'.
Sadly, at least half of the women I do see are begging. They sit on the pavement or, in the most pitiful cases, collapsed on the road in a puddle of their blue cotton burkas.
Traffic in central Kabul is like a Gordian knot. Cars crawl along, inching their way forward in a multi-laned mess. The rules of the road here are incoherent except that the bigger the car, the better it is for barging past others. The place is alive with the sound of tooting horns, but theyʼre not blaring. There is no road rage here despite there being plenty of opportunities. Negotiating the traffic seems part and parcel of everyday life and people just accept it.
And like every other strand of Afghan society, there are no female drivers. I'm assured by the Taliban that women are allowed to drive here, and citizens I ask say there are some women behind the wheel, but I just can't see any.
I do look, peering into cars, searching for the tell-tale signs of the headscarf, but I don't see any. I'm not an expert by any means. I've only been here a number of days and, to be fair, I wouldn't rush to test my driving skills on Kabul's streets - it's hairy enough being a passenger. But it feels very much like a man's world.
The majority of the people on the streets are male, the drivers seem exclusively male, the shops seem to be populated by male staff and speaking of shops, well they all appear to cater for... You guessed it - men!
When I go to the photo shop to get visa pictures developed, I notice that all the display photographs are of men. There is the odd woman in a mock family portrait but, generally speaking, this society is one devoid of women.
Even the advertising hoardings here are male. The few that I see are clearly aimed at and feature men. There is one for weight loss with the same man posing for 'before' and ‘after’ photos. Another, evidently for a phone company, depicts a man chatting animatedly into his handset. The only advertisement that I see which doesn't have a man as its central character has a boy instead.
I do see a handful of shops selling women's fashions and I spot one hairdresser with the tell-tale faded posters of female models posing with coiffured hair. I'm sure there must be more that I don't see, but they are most definitely not prevalent, and I guess it makes sense, because why cater for a customer that just isn’t there? This is not a criticism of women who want to wear the burka, but it should be their choice - to have bodily autonomy and freedom of expression.
I worry about the psychological impact that living in Afghanistan must have on women. This is something I hadn't considered before I came here. On the final leg of the journey, I caught a plane with my cameraman, Mark Ronaghan, and two men from UNICEF from Dubai to Kabul. Sitting in the terminal beforehand, I hadn't noticed that all the other passengers were almost exclusively male. I hadn't thought to look, to be honest.
When it came close to our departure time, I joined the back of the crowd congregating at the departure gate. Almost immediately I felt uncomfortable, becoming conscious of the quizzical glares in my direction. Clearly, I had breached some cultural etiquette which I was completely unaware of. I felt the hostility of the crowd of men and slunk back to my seat, joining the handful of Western women who would take their places when everyone else had boarded.
The feeling of being 'less than' in that unpleasant, novel experience might be fleeting. I can, after all, return to the relative normality of the West. But for some women in Afghanistan, the warped message that their society is sending them could begin to feel like the truth.
And they do not see that the real question is why it wants them to feel that way.