Our Work for Afghan Women Must Survive Past 2014
Our Work for Afghan Women Must Survive Past 2014

Credit: Sunita Viswanath

(WOMENSENEWS)–When the world wonders about the uncertain future for girls and women in Afghanistan after the 2014 troop withdrawal of foreign forces, I think of a three-story halfway house I just visited in Kabul.

I think of a resident there named Fatima who is tentatively recovering from a violent assault by her husband that very nearly killed her.

This house is not a gleaming palace of higher education, of the type that we all imagine someday for the girls and women of this region. But it is a refuge of the most necessary kind. Will this type of place be allowed to continue? Will we be able to expand on the work we’ve already done?

Women for Afghan Women began our work in 2001 and now we run 22 facilities in eight provinces across Afghanistan. Eight are walk-in centers for women, men and children who have suffered human rights violations. Seven are shelters for women. Three are residences for children whose mothers are imprisoned. Three more provide residences to women recently released from prison.

Our latest is this halfway house, which shelters women with extreme trauma and women transitioning from shelters.

The rooms are lean and breezy, and have twin or bunk beds. The ground floor holds offices and a large Afghan-style living room with big cushions along all four walls, a space that provides a common place for meals and meetings. All the residents can take jobs and/or literacy or vocational courses in town, and come and go as they please.

The women in our regular shelters have gone through every kind of human rights violation, including forced marriage, underage marriage, baad (a system when one family makes up for a crime against another family by handing over a female child), exchange marriage (a system where girls’ families exchange brides in lieu of dowry payment), domestic violence, rape and forced prostitution.

Hidden Shelters

Our shelters are in hidden locations–women cannot leave the premises because in most cases their lives are in danger and they are with us for their own protection.

Our new halfway house serves women in two ways. Sometimes it offers a transitional residence to women in the shelters whose cases have been resolved and are no longer in danger. Sometimes it’s there for women whose trauma has been particularly extreme and who need the more spacious, calmer and quieter environment it offers.

One of these women is Fatima (not her real name), who six years ago got married when she was 13 years old. The man turned out to be drug addicted and abusive. One day he fired a hunting pistol at her. The bullet tore through her torso, exiting from her stomach and spilling out her intestines. Fatima’s mother-in-law put her organs back into her body, wrapped a cloth around her tightly and neighbors helped get her to the nearest hospital.

From there Fatima was referred to the Human Rights Commission who flew her to Kabul for her surgery and medical care. They also referred her to our group, Women for Afghan Women.

Fatima’s brother, a former Taliban sympathizer, came with her to Kabul and stood by her side throughout. He witnessed the amazing work of the Human Rights Commission and our staff. At one point he said: "Before this, I did not think women could do any work. Now I have seen how much work is being done by women, and for women. No woman should suffer what my sister has suffered. My sister is everything to me."

When Fatima was released from the hospital she was in no condition to join one of our regular shelters, where residents share dormitory-style rooms. She was altogether too fragile. In March 2012, she became one of the first occupants of our halfway house.

Slow Improvements

Fatima has improved emotionally and physically during her seven-month stay. She is active and taking advantage of our literacy, tailoring and jewelry making classes. She loves to cook and made an excellent string bean dish we enjoyed for lunch.

A colleague and I recently travelled to Kabul and spent a draining day talking to Fatima and other residents of our new facility. A day is just long enough to hear stories of brutality and feel powerless and despondent; it is not nearly long enough for that protective skin to grow and inoculate us from overpowering emotions.

It took everything we had to listen with our strategic and problem-solving ears instead of breaking down. What right do we have to break down when the woman who has actually lived through the ordeal is telling her story calmly?

Our consolation comes in thinking about our thriving programs, both in New York City and Afghanistan.

Every one of our facilities offers refuge to women and men whose human rights have been violated. We assemble teams of lawyers, social workers, educators and courageous lay people to work for the best possible outcome for each one of our clients.

We also work alongside other wonderful organizations such as the Afghan Midwives Association.

After Sierra Leone, Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality in the world. In fact, the highest maternal mortality in the world is in Badakhshan, a province in the Northeast of Afghanistan. Afghan Midwives is present in every one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Since it began in 2005, the group has trained 3,500 midwives and 80 percent are working in their home provinces.

Future Concerns

Our senior staff in Afghanistan say there is no doubt that the modicum of security that exists in the country thanks to the foreign presence has allowed our work to thrive and grow.

Every staff person I have spoken to is worried about what the future holds; whether that will be a civil war or a Taliban take-over, or something in between. They are all also bravely committed to continuing their work as long as humanly possible.

Almost everyone I spoke to told me they feel their work for women’s rights is their duty as Muslims; that it is their religious duty to uphold the rights of women and children.

One man there was optimistic. He said that since Afghans know the horrors of a Taliban Afghanistan, they will never allow the country to be taken over again like that. The keys to a strong and peaceful future, he said, are that the international community keep their non-militaristic long-term commitments and that schools and universities continue to be the top priority in all provinces.

The midwives I met were also optimistic. They said that women have become strong, smart and strategic over the past decade. They will not be quiet if abuse takes place.

I hope these optimists are right. Young Afghan men and women have grown up in relative freedom and they have come to expect the right to go to school, university and get good jobs. I only hope and pray that in the days, weeks, months and years after 2014, when the foreign forces pull out of Kabul, that this type of critical work can continue.

I shudder to think of the alternative.

Sunita Viswanath is cofounder and board member of Women for Afghan Women.

In 2011, she cofounded another grassroots organization, Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and their three sons.

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