The author of this week’s blog is Jackie Paling, SIGBI Assistant Programme Director for Violence and Conflict Resolution. Jackie has travelled extensively around the world and says that her experiences have provided her with a truly excellent education. A regular visitor to Afghanistan, Jackie takes out humanitarian aid and supports various projects out there. A retired engineer, she often uses her creative skills to help Afghan women with their handicrafts.
I am now back in Afghanistan and visiting the women’s “safe house” mentioned in my previous blog “The worst place in the world to be a woman?” (http://www.soroptimistinternational.org/blog/post/171-the-worst-place-in-the-world-to-be-a-woman)
The women are very pleased to see me, and graciously thank me for the gifts of knitting and crochet needles, wool and other items. But I notice once more the sadness in their eyes. The violence that these women have experienced is not just physical violence, but also psychological violence. No wonder they feel worthless. What is their future? What are their dreams?. Indeed this is a question I ask many Afghan women I meet.
Yesterday I was in a different women’s safe house. However, the atmosphere was the same, a mixture of sadness, resignation, acceptance and boredom. The days seem endless again. The women here feel both hopeless and helpless. I hope that by helping such women with handicrafts, I can build up a little of their self-esteem, getting them to try out new things and achieve them. I listen to their stories and try having a conversation with them about other issues affecting Afghan women, and I tell them that many other women round the world, including organisations like Soroptimist International, are working to help them. Women’s rights are alien to most of them. In this country, there are stories everyday of violence against women. There was a recent case of a young wife who was murdered by her husband just for bearing a girl child.
After more than 30 years of conflict, Afghanistan has been left with one of the worst records in the world for education and literacy. Under the current Afghan Constitution, all children have the right to free and compulsory education up to a certain grade. Great efforts have been made by International and Afghan organisations to ensure that Afghan children may enjoy this right. Much progress has been made in the reconstruction of the education system and provision of schools. However many problems still exist. Although literacy rates among women and girls have improved (and the rates do vary depending on the source), they only reach a maximum of about 18%, and much less in many parts of the country. Traditional attitudes mean that many Afghan girls are being denied an education.
This has not been helped by the recent attacks on girls’ schools. In the past two months, those opposed to educating girls have been closing schools with intimidating security threats. Perhaps the most insidious acts have been the poisoning of girls and staff in a number of schools around the country. Many of the victims had to be hospitalised. No conclusive evidence has been released yet but it is thought that either chemical substances were sprayed into the classrooms or used to contaminate the school wells. That is a violation of international humanitarian law and the right to education. If this continues, we may yet see a resurgence of home-based schools.
In March this year, the Ulema Council, a tribunal of religious leaders, along with extremist groups made the following declaration: “Men are fundamental and women are secondary.” They also added that women should avoid mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, in offices and in other aspects of life.
This caused much consternation for human rights activists and organisations working to secure the rights of Afghan women. The worry is that the hard-earned progress made since the fall of the Taliban ten years ago is now at risk.
Last October saw the 10th Anniversary of western intervention in Afghanistan. To mark the date, an International Conference was held in Bonn, Germany, where Ministers and Special Representatives from 100 countries discussed their commitment to Afghanistan in terms of aid and military involvement for the next 10 years. At the first Bonn Conference 10 years ago, promises were made also about the protection of women’s rights. The Afghan Women’s Network, a large network of women’s organisations use green scarves to symbolize their strength and unity. The Green Scarf Campaign was launched last October in the run up to the main Bonn Conference, to show solidarity with these women and to call on world leaders to ensure that any political settlement would guarantee Afghan women’s rights, and a role for women in the peace process. Photo-wall petitions were initiated, and in the UK, Soroptimists attending their Federation Conference in Brighton had their photos taken with green scarves. These photos accompanied the UK Foreign Minister to Bonn.
Two weeks ago, NATO held its latest summit in Chicago, attended by representatives from 50 countries. At the summit, leaders signed a pact to officially end the war in Afghanistan in 2014. However nothing was mentioned about what will happen to Afghan women after troop withdrawal. Advocates for Afghan women’s rights sprang into action. Amnesty International organised a “Shadow Summit” which ran alongside the NATO one. Prominent Afghan women, including Afifi Azim, Director and Co-Founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, spoke about the role of women during the transition process and the conversations NATO should be having about Afghan Women’s rights. Were any Soroptimists in attendance? I would love to know!
Whatever the outcome after 2014, we as Soroptimists must not desert these women. We must do all we can to ensure that Afghan women’s voices are heard. And back in the safe house the women seem momentarily happy as they discuss different crochet patterns and help each other with their handicraft. I ask them how they feel about recent comments. One woman retorts - “Men are fundamental are they? We are just as fundamental! If it wasn’t for us, who do the men think would bear and care for their children?”