3 July 2010

Resilient and courageous women

By Marguerite Finn

On the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom stall at the 5th annual Peace Camp in the Forum last Saturday I had an interesting discussion with a lady about Afghanistan. She remarked that despite it having claimed a multitude of British military lives over two centuries, we know relatively little about the country itself or what it is like for women living there.

I did a bit of research and found resilient and courageous women who knew exactly what they wanted from life. Take for example the secret girls schools, now emerging in Afghanistan. These small schools, some based in homes, are blossoming because girls are subjected to violence on their way to and from school. There is little security and threats come daily from either the Taliban or from kidnappers.

Female education was banned under the Taliban and school-going girls continue to be hassled by Taliban supporters. In response, a number of parents have set up underground schools to allow their daughters to continue studying despite the current escalating campaign of insurgent attacks around Kandahar. This is a particularly brave decision on the part of the parents, especially as districts in Kandahar are dotted with 'safe houses' used by Taliban insurgents infiltrating the city. The risk of being found out is great in areas where neighbour dare not trust neighbour. Nevertheless, the desire for knowledge and an appreciation of the benefits of education for women are even greater.

In another part of Afghanistan a similar spirit of defiance and creativity can be found. Parwan is a province to the north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, with a rich culture originally founded by Alexander the Great in 329BC. Today, Parwan is the site of a new skills centre set up with a grant from the Parwan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to empower female breadwinners. There are 2,500 members of the Agricultural and Handicrafts Association of Parwan, a unique organisation which has helped pull women and their families out of poverty. What makes the association special is that from in 2007, when it was set up, it thought big and bold – not really what was expected from women in Afghanistan's male-dominated culture !

The female Director, Saleha Zarin, brought in 500 women with a broad range of existing skills and set about improving these and teaching them new, marketable ones. The activities include making jams, pickles and cakes, weaving carpets, tailoring, and farming saffron and livestock. The range has since been broadened to include new farming techniques. Membership costs around 80p for which the women become part of a ready-made cooperative. The association also takes on trainees with no existing skills and makes them self-sufficient in a matter of months.

At long last, things are beginning to improve on the ground for women in some parts of Afghanistan – but not everywhere. In Herat in the south of the country, officials report a 50 percent rise in female suicide over the past year. Many of these incidents involved women recently returned from Iran where they had fled to avoid the Taliban’s rule and where they had enjoyed a relatively better life. Returning in the hope that things had now improved, they found this was far from the case; they faced unemployment, poverty and violence.

However, this situation is not going unchallenged. Hamida Husseini, Director of the cultural department of the government’s directive for women's affairs in Herat, says they will be sending teams of people from house to house talking to young mothers and girls about their daily lives and problems, to learn how to support vulnerable families.

While the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to end anytime soon (especially now that 'vast, untapped mineral riches' have just been reported there), is it not encouraging to see Afghan women taking their lives into their hands?

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