The everyday battle

Behind the deadly headlines in Afghanistan, inspirational women are making slow, significant progress, reports Glyn Strong.

Midwifery StudentAfghanistan has long been defined by men and war. The men have included politicians, religious leaders, foreigners and warlords. The wars have been waged by them, or on their behalf.

Four years after Hamid Karzhai was sworn in as President, and three years after the first ‘democratic’ elections for 30 years, the country is still described as a failing or failed state. It is still a battleground on many fronts. Fundamentalism, poverty, tribal rivalry, greed and the drug trade have taken their toll. Corruption is a fact of life and freedom of movement for women still a pipedream.

On her first visit to Britain, in October, to receive The Anna Politkovskaya Award for human rights activity, the suspended Afghan MP Malalai Joya told the House of Lords that while her country has received $18 billion in aid in the last seven years, “ordinary people have not benefited from it. Only 2% of Afghan people have access to electricity and, according to recent figures released by the UN FAO, 70% (18 million people) live on less than $2 a day.”

But behind this grim analysis, behind the claims and counter-claims of national and international politicians, lies the story of the ordinary women of this country, whose experiences depict a more inspirational tale – albeit shot through with fears that funding might be withdrawn or fragile initiatives left to founder as security deteriorates. Everywhere Afghanistan’s women are both frustrated and hungry for a better life.

Victoria Parsa, head of midwiferyIn Kabul their number includes Fatima and Arifa whose loans from the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan (MISFA) enabled them to make money from curtain making and embroidery. Loans of 10,000 then 15,000 AFS (£250 in all) made it possible for Fatima to open a shop, train and employ other women and enrol her son in English and computer classes. 

Just days after a suicide bombing, many citizens are nervous but Fatima is upbeat and keen to show off her shop.

Not far from the ruined palace of Zahir Shah, two other women benefit from resources provided by NGO CURE International to fund its flagship hospital. Afghanistan will not meet any of the MDGs, which means that too many women will still die needlessly from pregnancy-related complications. But if they can get to the CURE Hospital and come under the care of Head of Midwifery Victoria Parsa, 27, they are blessed. Pioneering treatment of fistulas, obstetric and gynaecological training for GPs and an excellent midwifery department is something the charity is justifiably proud of. Musuna, 27, has just given birth to quads by C-section. Against the odds, all will survive.

In Helmand province, women attending a residential midwifery course at Lashkah Gar’s Bost Hospital, range from late teens to mid-30s and they will take skills back to their remote villages that will save lives.

Not all female empowerment is related to gender issues however. The green energy company Tolo-e Zanane- Afghan (TZA), in partnership with the Department of Renewable Energy, provides women with the chance to build on engineering training and give the country desperately needed reliable and cost-effective energy.

By harnessing wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric resources, engineers like Shafiqa, Halima and Samiya are able to earn a living and transform lives. A five-volt panel that absorbs sunlight all day can power four light bulbs for an entire night enabling children to read and study. It isn’t cheap by Afghan standards but it’s reliable and, once purchased, attracts no further running costs.

A job at the solar project for Samiya, 25, means that one day she may be able to live with her children again. She was forced into marriage during the Taliban era by a man who spotted her in the bazaar. “One day he followed me home and told my parents ‘I want to marry your daughter’. He already had a wife and I didn’t want to marry him, but my parents were scared. He was an important man. Now I want to divorce him. I live with my parents but they have no room for my children and I cannot afford to rent anywhere.”

The tiny village of Hazrat-e-Sultan, a seven-hour drive from Kabul in Samangan province, was once the conservative stronghold of anti-Taliban guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Nothing stirs in this arid place where the sky goes on forever and the mountains stand like sentinels in the distance. The classroom of Khadija Hadiri and her girls peer group are reached via a gateway in a mud-walled enclosure where a sign acknowledges the support of Comic Relief.

Najiba stands with her childrenThe 16 girls receive an education, instruction in handicrafts, children’s rights, women’s rights and business. Khadija finds their bank book with everyone’s name in it. “They are saving as a group; they want to invest in a shop where they can sell their own products.”

It’s supported by Afghanaid, which is involved in 195 projects in Samangan alone. ranging from water provision, training for women, carpet weaving and tailoring to establishment of kitchen gardens and agriculture. Afghanaid’s Women’s Coordinator in the area, Khori Gul, navigates the dusty roads that lead to the kitchen garden and home workshop of Najiba – ventures that enable the family to eat well through the harsh winter. This cultivated plot, invisible from outside the dried mud walls of the compound that contains it, is idyllic. It is also a thriving commercial enterprise that owes its existence to international aid and mentoring.

Attached to the home that Najiba shares with her husband Zainuddin and three children, is a 12,000 sq m garden and flourishing orchard. It is a breathtaking testament to what can be done with advice, provision of quality seed and cookery lessons. “This is the first year of the seed programme,” says Najiba. “I grow lettuces, radishes, onions, tomatoes, leeks, and squash – all sorts of things. There is so much – already I have sold some vegetables and given some away to my neighbours.”

Her struggle isn’t against insurgents. ‘Confl ict’ for her doesn’t mean rocketpropelled grenades raining down on her village. But like so many Afghan women she is still engaged in a daily battle for survival. In a country left vulnerable by war and underinvestment, access to clean water and healthy seeds is as important as ambitious building projects. It’s a slow process, but this is an area where change does not come quickly and all progress is significant.

Changed for good

Engineers at the offices of the department of renewable energyDFID in Afghanistan
Despite the daily struggle of life in Afghanistan, real strides have been made since the Taliban regime ended in 2001. Under the Taliban only 1 million children went to school, all of them boys, but now 6 million benefit from regular schooling – including 2 million girls.

Today over 80% of districts have access to basic levels of health care compared with 9% in 2002. As a result infant mortality for children under five has fallen from 25% to 19% in five years. Improved health care and cleaner water and sanitation has also saved thousands of lives. Also, improvements in maternity care mean that figures for death in childbirth have been drastically cut.

Everywhere, Afghanistan’s inspirational women are both frustrated and hungry for a better life