Empower, support and provide resources
– by Humaira Rasuli, Saifora Paktiss
© Medica Afghanistan
Rally against sexualised gender based violence and for women’s rights in Kabul in 2013.
How does the situation in Afghanistan look like today, especially for women, 15 years after the Taliban were overthrown?
Humaira Rasuli: The change is obvious, and progress is measurable. The participation of women in the public domain is prominent – may it be in the education and health sector, in sports, in social media as well as in decisionmaking. Women were appointed as ministers, governors, ambassadors and members of the High Peace Council. Some were elected for parliament. Others serve as doctors, teachers, lawyers, judges, journalists or human-rights activists. Nevertheless, we witness rising violence against women. As an example, I would like to highlight the case of Farkhunda, a girl that was falsely accused of having burnt a Quran and brutally killed on the spot in Kabul in 2015. Not all perpetrators of that heinous incident were sentenced. Some sentences were changed after their appeal. The public is still waiting for a re-evaluation of the verdicts by the Supreme Court.
Saifora Paktiss: There are further incidents: women working in the security sector are harassed, female students are attacked with acid and poisoned on their way to school, female journalists and lawyers are targeted and killed. The maternal mortality rate is increasing again and pushed Afghanistan back to the second last place in the world ranking just ahead of Sierra Leone. Laws related to women’s rights are challenged in parliament, gender budgeting is not mainstreamed by the government, the Ministry of Women Affairs is not supported, and challenges in the recruitment of women for higher ranks in the civil service grow day by day.
What are the main problems women face in Afghanistan?
Rasuli: The main problems for Afghan women are lack of security, insufficient involvement in the reconciliation process, lack of access to an unbiased justice system and legal representation while the traditional justice system prevails. Women have inadequate access to basic health services and schooling. They are systematically discriminated against and are experiencing various forms of violence: physical, economic, psychological and sexual. We observe the lack of political will to accept women as one half of society and the lack of will to involve them in the revival of Afghanistan as a progressive country. The Afghan president, the First Lady and some cabinet members are fully supportive and work on removing the hurdles. But there are other actors in the public arena that obstruct processes.
Why is the law for the elimination of violence against women not really implemented?
Rasuli: Non-implementation of the EVAW Law (elimination of violence against women) is evidence for the lack of political will to mainstream women’s rights in the policy and procedures of the government. Other reasons for the poor implementation of the law are systemic barriers to women’s access to justice, a lack of understanding of the types and extent of violence, a weak judiciary system, corruption, nepotism and a lack of public understanding of the law and its purpose, thus its misinterpretation.
How does the work of Medica Afghanistan look like?
Paktiss: We focus on direct services for survivors of sexualised gender based violence (SGBV) in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. Our legal assistance serves to empower, support and provide resources for women to claim their rights through the formal justice system. We try to address barriers to women’s access to justice by direct advocacy with government authorities. Through our stress- and trauma-sensitive psychosocial support, we help women to rediscover their strength, abilities and resources. During counselling, they learn to use their own protection and coping mechanisms to improve their well-being. We offer psychosocial services to clients individually in five government-supported hospitals and in groups in women prisons, in the Women’s Garden in Kabul and in shelters supported by women-run non-governmental organisations. In addition to direct services, we offer training for national and international NGOs on the ramifications of violence against women, trauma and consequences, mediation and self-care. We address mullahs, police officers or judges in order to raise their awareness on women’s rights and persuade them to change their attitude and behaviour. We provide training on our stress- and trauma-sensitive approach for staff in hospitals and for other service providers, such as women protection centres on SGBV. It is our goal to explain Afghan women their rights and to change their lives. These are situations where all other key players remain silent.
Can you give tangible examples of your work?
Rasuli: I would like to present two examples of our interventions. N. (an alias) was the third wife of her husband. She faced several kinds of violence by her husband and his first wife and even lost her unborn child due to an act of violence. After three years of marriage her husband left her, and her in-laws consequently kept her locked up. A former client of Medica Afghanistan drew our attention to her case, and we took it up. Her husband was eventually sentenced to three months imprisonment and agreed to a divorce.
As to the second example: L. (an alias) was forced to marry a man with obvious mental problems when she was 12 years old because her brother wanted to marry that man’s sister. She spent 18 years with her husband and suffered from violence by him and her in-laws. The only reason she didn’t ask for a divorce was her son. In June 2016, when she again faced a serious act of physical violence, she went to the provincial directorate of the Ministry of Women Affairs. They referred her to the mediation centre of Medica Afghanistan. As she was in a bad psychological condition, we referred her to our psycho-social health programme counsellor and one of our lawyers informed her about her rights. She decided to separate from her husband through mediation. When this failed, she addressed the family court. With the help of a lawyer, the court decision was in favour of her, and she was divorced. A social worker of Medica Afghanistan referred her to a literacy course.
What are your main goals?
Paktiss: Our main goal is to raise awareness and build capacities for women’s rights in the fields of health, education and law. To that end, it is also about sensitising men to the key issues of SGBV and including them in finding solutions. For example, Medica Afghanistan offers advanced professional trainings to male and female lawyers, attorneys, doctors, social workers, religious leaders and police personnel on the impact of violence against women. We also address the traumatic impacts of all forms of violence against women upon survivors, families, institutions and society. By lobbying for change in structures and policies in order to create better quality of life for women and girls we also promote a more equitable and peaceful Afghanistan. We encourage exchange and cooperation between women from different countries, cultures, social backgrounds and conflicting parties and thus contribute to a process of reconciliation and peace.
What has Medica Afghanistan already achieved?
Rasuli: On the “advocacy front”, Medica Afghanistan was the leading organisation that fought successfully against child marriage and demanded the mandatory registration of marriages at the courts. We were in the forefront for the ratification of the family law and in campaigns for the protection and implementation of the EVAW law. Other achievements of our work are group campaigns for the establishment of EVAW courts and EVAW prosecution units. We are one amongst a limited number of NGOs that regularly record the analysis of cases that are followed by their lawyers, cases of women that have been indicted based on EVAW law implementation. Providing relief to the sorrows and healing traumatic sufferings of the survivors of SGBV are certainly further striking successes.
What are your main future challenges?
Paktiss: Our main challenges will be safety and security. We cannot expand our services to rural areas where women are suffering even more from domestic violence than in the cities. Due to the security situation we cannot easily invite international consultants to improve the quality of our work. As an NGO, our sustainability depends on the continuous flow of funding for our projects. We fear that international donors might lose interest in funding Afghanistan due to frustration with the situation and the unknown future of the country. The delivery of direct services as well as our advocacy work for women’s rights face daily hurdles. Our commitment, however, is strong and will last.
Is your work dangerous for you?
Rasuli: We are credited with prominence within our society for our work, and this prominence brings both prosperity and threats in a conflicting environment like Afghanistan. Our work represents pure service to women, with the ultimate goal to bring hope, peace and serenity to our society. Unfortunately, we continuously receive threats from those who are opposed to our ideas and work, and who fear that they are going to lose control and power.
Humaira Rasuli is the director of the women’s-rights organisation Medica Afghanistan.
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Saifora Paktiss is the deputy director of Medica Afghanistan.