Sima Wali with staff

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the daughter of a respected Afghan official, Sima Wali narrowly escaped death during the 1978 Marxist coup. Detained and threatened, she managed to flee for her life as family and friends succumbed to execution, torture and imprisonment. Now, after 24 years in exile, Wali is returning to the Afghan capital of Kabul. This time she will face the more challenging step of helping to rebuild her shattered nation.

"I am apprehensive and I know that I’ll be devastated," Wali tells us as the aging 727 Ariana Afghan Airlines plane descends over the blasted suburbs of Kabul. "But I’m also hopeful that I will be able to help those who are returning to Afghanistan, especially the women–to rebuild a devastated country and the lives of the Afghan people."

Just looking out the window at the shattered remnants of what was once a vibrant city should be enough to cause despair. But as president of the Washington, D.C.-based Refugee Women in Development, Wali has become inured to the sight of ruined societies and the severe toll the process has taken on women. For more than 20 years now, she has aided uprooted women and men, enabling them to participate in economic and social development. So keen is her understanding that she attended last year’s U.N. Peace Talks on Afghanistan in Bonn as a delegate to the "Rome Group" representing the former king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah.

For the first time this past October Wali was able to apply those lessons directly to her own people by running a skills-training workshop for women-led Afghan non-governmental organizations. Long on "woman power" but short on financial support, indigenous Afghan NGOs, as these groups are known, provided education and support services for women and girls clandestinely under the Taliban’s harsh rule. Now, funding skills must replace survival tactics, and Wali’s workshop will provide local groups with the crafts necessary to access the pipeline for international aid.

Even before Wali’s arrival the list of interested NGO’s grows daily as word of the workshop spreads throughout the community. Wali spends her first week in Afghanistan assessing those groups and narrowing the field. But with 75 percent of Kabul in ruins, the sheer immensity of the task can be seen on her face. After 24 years of war, the issues facing Afghanistan are staggering. For men, unemployment, extremism, drugs and a culture of violence top the list. For women, as victims of these maladies they face the additional burdens of sexual abuse, a lack of awareness of politics and human rights.

After September 2001, hope exploded in the streets of Kabul as the international community began arriving en masse to provide aid to their devastated country. But a year later, emergency aid only trickles in while the reconstruction aid that was promised has failed to materialize. As a result, begging has returned to the streets of Kabul, the only means of support for many Afghans, especially widows. It’s a vicious cycle. Without work, men must leave home. Those that remain become prime candidates for recruitment by radical Islamists, leaving women to shoulder both work and family with little or no security.

Afghan-based Organizations Are Key to Development

Yet hope persists in the form of these local NGOs, whose vitality was proven during the Taliban era, when many often faced down their misogynist oppressors with the support of the community. Only these indigenous organizations can provide the knowledge base needed to rebuild Afghan society.

"Literacy is the biggest problem," explains Humaira Popal, program manager for Afghan Women’s Welfare Department, a school for 400 students. "Only 4 percent of Afghans read." Although freed from Taliban, schools like Popal’s face new obstacles as the Kabul government demands cumbersome reports that burden school staff.

Arezo Ghanih and Maleka Qanih of the Educational Training Center for Poor Girls and Women of Afghanistan kept their program in literacy, embroidery and English open by running home schools during the Taliban years. Now they operate programs for 600 students. The budget is so tight they must use doll-size clothing to practice on. Even though the center has not received international funding, it operates with guidelines that include a board of directors and a chain of command. Productive and efficient, it has maintained a standard that could put Wall Street to shame.

After living in the United States for decades, Mina Sherzoy has returned to Afghanistan to run World Organization for Mutual Afghan Network with urgency. Her goal is to train Afghan women to be financially independent. Sherzoy is hoping to provide a range of services, including Internet access, to further that goal. But steep government fees are inhibiting her efforts.

Shafiqa Habibi worked as an on-air anchor for Afghan TV for over 20 years until the Taliban came to power. Her organization, Nawa ("voice" in Dari) runs three home schools for girls that teach reading, math, religion, childcare, journalism and public speaking. Habibi considers the warlords to be Afghanistan’s greatest problem today and is frustrated by the media’s lack of criticism. "The warlords do not want women to appear publicly or regain their position," she states. (Editor’s note: Habibi is one of Women’s Enews Leaders for the 21st Century.)

A Strategy for Self-empowerment

Although Wali met with twenty-eight groups, it was the 18 local women-led organizations assessed during the first week who are welcomed for participation in the workshop. Having formulated a strategy for their self-empowerment, Wali’s course focuses on the much needed proposal-writing skills required for accessing international funds.

Gathering at Aina ("mirror" in Dari), a French-run multimedia and cultural center, the 22 participants respond to the process with excitement and joy and over the week progress rapidly towards proficiency. Based on the needs identified to support civil society being built by these NGOs, Wali then develops a three year proposal for the UN to be considered under the reconstruction program for Afghanistan.

For Wali, the workshop’s success is affirmation, not only that Afghan women could retain their basic beliefs in the freedoms already enshrined in their 1964 constitution, but could also reclaim their rights to those freedoms given the watchful eye and protection of the international community.

Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald, a husband-and-wife team, were the first American journalists to acquire permission to enter Afghanistan behind Soviet lines in 1981. They covered Afghanistan for CBS News, PBS, ABC Nightline and the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. On Oct. 6, 2002 they traveled back to Afghanistan to cover the return of Sima Wali, the culmination of a five-year collaboration with her.


For more information:

Refugee Women in Development, Inc.:–Afghanistan: