Kabul, Afghanistan 2012
We are a local NGO that was founded in 2001 in New York. In 2006, we registered with the Government of Afghanistan. Our New York office is registered within the United States of America, and we are a separate and registered entity in Afghanistan.
We work in eight provinces in Afghanistan: Kabul, Kapisa, Balkh, Faryab, Sar-i-Pul, Kunduz, Badakhshan and Nangarhar. We are in the process of opening offices in Herat and Takhar. We work primarily on shelter needs of women, with over 450 employees and seven women’s shelters. We don’t have a shelter in Nangarhar alone. In addition, we also have eight family guidance centers.
The shelter programming is a part of the duties of these family guidance centers. Shelter programming is available for any woman who suffers from a human rights violation. We try as hard as possible to help them through counseling, and push their cases through. If they are not successful pushing it forward informally, we refer it to the legal aid department and they push it forward after that, whether it is a criminal case or another type.
So far, about 2700 women have been helped via the shelters, and about 180 – 240 people receive assistance through the family guidance center on any given month in each province.
Now, if a woman comes with the complaint that her body is in danger, we look at whether or not she is in any immediate danger. If she is, we refer her to our shelter. Otherwise, we deal with the issue without shelter involvement.
We have another component that involves follow–up of cases. It is possible that the woman goes back home after the case closes but, after a few days, she is in danger again. We do comprehensive follow-ups for a full year, with our employees going into their homes and visiting them themselves. This is a matter of safety for the women.
Most women we work with are very young, aged mostly between 14 and 25. They face a lot of issues, and need the help we can offer them. We have to work in the clinics, courts, hospitals, and more in order to reach this very young group of individuals.
We also have transitional houses, which are for ex-prisoners. In the past, when they would be released, we would take them to the shelters because they had nowhere else to go. In some ways, they were exiting one prison and then would end up in another, because, in a shelter, they don’t have permission to use phones normally or go outside, or do such other things. We have two of these shelters, one in Kabul and one in Balkh. This was the first time in Afghanistan that transitional housing was created in Afghanistan for women. They are kept there until they have other options. People who come to us are those who can’t go home, so we try through facilitate reconciliation and reintegration for these individuals. We try to help them however we can, solving their legal or other issues, with our relevant departments.
There are four phases to this:
(1) Orientation to culture – these individuals just came out of prison and often don’t know what to do in a house and what not to do. This also includes getting them a ID and helping them develop a savings plan that we first contribute to and then they must contribute to
(2) Islamic learning, life skills and educational skills - such as learning how to read and write Dari
(3) Job placement – we determine if they can work (perhaps they are too young to work or, because they are illiterate, they are not able to find a job)
(4) We try to get 3-4 people together to rent a house themselves if they can’t go anywhere else
There were four girls living in a house together, with one killed and another living alone. People said that they were bad women for living alone without a man. This became a very dangerous situation for us because if we continued to have people live together without a man, what would that do to our reputation and to us? Most women get married or go back home, but what about the others that don’t? They don’t have many options, if any really.
Then there are situations where a girl is left here alone, perhaps because she was divorced and couldn’t remarry or her family lives illegally in Iran and she can’t go there herself. We help these individuals as well with something similar to the transitional justice situation.
There are lots of individuals who have no choice but to live alone, including those who are injured or beaten and then are released from the hospital. They have a caretaker for awhile, and have separate rooms out of necessity. They have nowhere else to go. There are about 26 women in halfway houses like this now and 12 children.
One last thing we do at WAW is take care of children whose mothers are in prison. In the past, mothers had to take their children to prison along with them, and then they had to get them out of the prison when they turned six. The mother usually had no choice but to send them to relatives with poor financial states. We have child support centers where we help these children. There are three categories of danger for children, and this is one of them. We want to expand this in Herat because there are 61 children in prison with their mothers. At the moment, there are about 215-220 children at our centers (north, northeast and central). They stay with us in the evenings, study at normal schools and are taken by the company’s cars and the like. Of the 20 kids, in Kunduz, 19 of them were first-rankers in their classes.
Why do you do this? What is the story behind the work?
It will be my fourth year with WAW. I used to work with Catholic Relief Services before that for 5 years, and then with IRC prior to that under their mediation programme. I graduated from a madrassa, and then the Taliban came and closed our madrassa. I tried very hard, but they never let us work. After that, I just lived and noticed that too often schools were closed and people couldn’t study. I opened my own secret madrassa for girls on Islam. I noticed that the girls who came to me, particularly the young ones, couldn’t even read. They could read sometimes but couldn’t write. I did this on the side, trying to help them gain literacy. I also ended up working with women’s education in Panjshir, Kapisa, and Bamiyan, trying to implement accelerated learning programs whenever possible. My heart would just burn for these individuals.
My interest in human rights for women when it comes to violence did not come from this specifically. But I noticed that many people believed that women had to stay in the house, and that this was where they belonged.
A lot of people have the impression that once you work for an NGO, it becomes true that you will not work for a local NGO. But that is not the case. I wanted to work for a local NGO. When we started, WAW only had offices in Kabul and Balkh, and look where it is now!
I continue to see that women face a lot of legal issues. An Afghan woman has a lot of problems – she doesn’t have education, she doesn’t have an understanding of reproductive health. A lot of them don’t have opportunities. In Ghor, we couldn’t find a woman who had studied up to third grade so that we could train her to teach first graders. We wouldn’t give people a salary even. In Ghor, there were times during which, in six months time, they wouldn’t see oil but they would still study. The biggest issue is education, because all of the other problems are rooted in our illiteracy. There are too many individuals who are illiterate, particularly among women. If we can focus on this, then we can push forward everything. Right now, 49% of people get married before they are 18. This is legal for girls 16 and above but it is still a striking number. Too many girls marry before they are even 16.
Everyone wants education, but opportunities are lacking. Enrollment in schools has gone up, but what is the benefit? By the time they enter 4th grade, they are out of school again.
How do you separate yourself from the emotions of the sad stories you deal with in your work?
In the work that we do, we can never separate it from our private lives. You must have heard the story of Diwa in Jalalabad. This was a girl who had a female attorney. She was the first one who managed to get to hire a female attorney! The government did not do anything. I think around 1.30am or so, last night, I just woke up thinking of this woman and her situation. I couldn’t sleep until 5am, and was just emailing back-and-forth with our Executive Director in New York to pass time. No matter what you do, you can’t separate your emotions. However, this is necessary. Our work is very dangerous, but, if we don’t do this work, who will help these women? Our private lives are eaten up by this type of work. It is filled with stress. But you have to do what you need to do – because you know it is necessary and you know you can help some people.
On my way here, I was called with a case about a woman in Faryab in the hospital because her husband beat her and hit her on her back so much. Even now, we are dependent on others – she can’t sign her papers herself. I told my colleague that you have to sign it, that you have to sign it for this woman from WAW’s name, because she needs the help.
Helping people is exhausting but it also gives us the energy to continue work, particularly in Afghanistan where there are a lot of obstacles, from security to many other things.
We have security issues, especially if we are pushing forward a very dangerous case. In one such case, a 12-year-old girl who was married to a Commander in the ALP. We tried as much as we could to help this girl and, in the course of this case, two police officers died. Finally, the commander was imprisoned.
Have there been situations where you did all you could, but you could not really succeed in helping a woman truly?
There was another girl who wanted to marry but whose family didn’t approve and whose father bribed the courts, and sent her to prison for a year. She is out now and we are trying to push forward her marriage. She’s 19, I think, completely of legal age.
There was another girl in Faryab who married at 15 and her husband hit her so much that she just couldn’t be helped. We took her from one hospital to another, with even employees giving blood, but no one could help her. She passed away. The hospital couldn’t help her.
What main recommendations do you have to improve access to justice for women Afghanistan?
I think that the first thing that needs to happen is that we have to get rid of bureaucracy. This is particularly important in the districts. There is no prosecutor, no this person or that. These individuals get very little salaries and don’t really work for people as a result. In many, many places, there was a place in Sar-i-Pul, there was a girl who we tried to help because she was married off as a 12-year-old by her father and raped by her husband. The government only charged the husband 3,000 Afghanis. The saranwal couldn’t help, or he said he couldn’t, because she couldn’t provide evidence. I asked him, “What did you want – a video?” I asked him if he had seen the girl and he said no, so I asked him what kind of authority he had to assume she didn’t have any evidence.
If F.I. could assist you in any way, what would you ask for?
Awareness and advocacy
If you could share one message with the world, what would it be?
In Afghanistan, change is come and coming. We can’t allow the last ten years of work to fall apart in the future. We have to try to continue to help one another, and receive help. Any support given to the government should come with conditions to help its citizens, to help its future, and to get rid of bureaucracy.
By Shahla Naimi