Afghan women's organizations - Key actors in rebuilding Afghanistan and assisting refugees

Drawing from the experience of the Women's Commission, this document provides additional details regarding Afghan women's organizations, their successes and challenges in providing humanitarian assistance.
Development of Afghan Women's Organizations

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89), Afghan women inside the country and in refugee settings became active in humanitarian response activities. As a result of this involvement, more and more Afghan women's groups began to emerge, particularly in Pakistan, in the early 1990s. Numerous women-led non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operated across the Afghan-Pakistan border through bases in Pakistan. New organizations continue to form, as Afghan women's confidence in their abilities grows. To date, groups have arisen out of the Pushtun, Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups. There are as yet no Uzbek or Turkmen women's NGOs.

From the beginning, women's organizations have addressed a variety of needs, including in the areas of health, education, income generation and, in more recent years, trauma counseling and rights awareness. The organizations provide such assistance in Pakistani refugee camps and in refugee communities in the urban areas of Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Quetta. Afghan women are also active in helping Afghan refugees in and around major cities in Iran, including Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad. Some groups have been able to operate inside Afghanistan clandestinely or after negotiating with local leaders.

Women have also gained expertise through working in United Nations agencies as administrative staff and as implementers of assistance programs both inside and outside Afghanistan. Examples include: the HABITAT Women's Community Fora program in Afghanistan; UNICEF projects with mothers and children, and UNHCR resettlement and refugee protection projects. Similarly, international NGOs employ women as part of their administrative staff and as direct implementers inside and outside Afghanistan. Examples include: CARE's widow's feeding program in Kabul; International Rescue Committee's Female Education Programme in Pakistan refugee camps; Terre Des Hommes' Mother and Child Health program in Kabul; and Action Contre La Faim's programs for malnourished children in various locations of Afghanistan.

Women's groups and female staff in UN and international NGOs play a vital role in providing protection and assistance to Afghan women and girls. Many families do not allow Afghan adult males to interact with adolescent or adult females. By investing in women's organizations and nurturing female staff members, aid organizations help ensure they are reaching the largest number of beneficiaries.

There are many types of groups and activities run by Afghan women. Women's NGOs are staffed by individuals who are involved in activities at every stage, from administration and liaison with donors to logistics and implementation of assistance programs. Examples of such organizations include: the Afghan Women's Resource Centre and Afghan Women's Welfare Development, covering health, education, income generation, skills training and relief distributions; Shuhada, covering health and education both inside and outside Afghanistan; and Afghan Women's Education Centre, dealing with trauma counseling and advice to destitute women, projects for street women and children and relief distributions.

There are also a number of networks run by Afghan women that are used for advocacy, fund-raising, awareness raising and, at times, project implementation. These groups include the Afghan Women's Network, the Afghan Women's Council and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Informal women's groups are also very active, effective and influential at the community level. These informal groups have a wide range of activities and objectives, and can include: business women who organize others for income generation; mosque groups (Shiite Muslims) in Afghanistan who gather women for sermons on women's rights in Islam, for literacy and for Koranic education; or home schools operating in many parts of Afghanistan.

Opportunities and Obstacles

Afghan women's NGOs have achieved a great deal in a short time compared to their male counterparts. They have had to contend with discrimination during a period when conservative, patriarchal Muslim elements have dominated the Afghan and Pakistani communities in which they operate. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghan women participated in public life, but the number of these women was relatively small and they were mostly from urban backgrounds. Women studied to become teachers, doctors, engineers and lawyers, but taking care of their family was still seen as their first and foremost responsibility. As a result, if work interfered with family responsibilities or detracted from the male family members' status (should the woman gain a higher salary or the male is unemployed), the woman was forced to give up her work.

In the past, some donors were reluctant to give long-term funding to women's organizations because they perceived these groups to lack the capacity or expertise to write budgets, hire staff, report and write proposals. Prior to September 11, lack of donor interest in Afghanistan meant that many organizations lived a hand to mouth existence from project to project with no additional funds to invest in staff or organization capacity building. However, many groups have developed the capacity to run large programs and their donors now include governments, United Nations, private foundations and individuals. These established organizations and nascent ones need ongoing capacity building support in management, advocacy and project implementation, among others.

The perception of lack of capacity comes from the newness of some Afghan women's NGOs, resistance from some male Afghan NGO staff worried about competition from Afghan women's NGOs, and perceptions about the difficulties which Afghan women face in being mobile and assertive in their own communities.

Afghan women also face language barriers in their interactions with the international community; fewer are conversant in English than their male counterparts. Afghan women can face restrictions in movement and interaction with others, and in some cases lack confidence in expressing themselves. For example, some Afghan women running informal groups are illiterate, speak no English or choose to be fully covered according to the tenets of Islam. As a result, Afghan women who are dynamic and active in their communities may not be invited to attend or participate in key meetings.

Moreover, women running NGOs must be careful in how they publicize their existence and activities, since their physical security cannot be guaranteed. Afghan women's NGOs may be viewed by more conservative Muslim elements, in the Afghan and Pakistani communities as "brazen women" who have "improper" relationships with "Western" donors and agencies. It is necessary to build local and international support bases so that women feel more secure in their activities, but it must be done without undermining or jeopardizing the advances already made.

The numbers of dynamic and vocal Afghan women and organizations are increasing. The Afghan Women's Network (AWN) was established 1996 as Afghan women began to recognize the value of combined efforts and networking. The network has a membership of three hundred, which includes individuals as well as organizations. Members of the network have provided training on gender issues, women's rights and skills training.

Vital Sectors: Health, Education, Livelihood


In the health sector, a devastated infrastructure within Afghanistan undermines women's health. The poor infrastructure is plagued by a severe lack of clinics, and shortage of operating hours, medical supplies and personnel.

In the refugee camps of Pakistan, most health services are provided by the Pakistan Directorate for Health (PDH) which works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In cases where clinics or camp-based Basic Health Units are operating, women's access is limited due to poverty (need money for transportation), time to get to the clinics, cultural restrictions on mobility (require a male escort) or reliance on traditional practices for treatment. There have been frequent complaints from Afghan women in relation to the quality and scope of services provided by PDH. Afghans living in urban or peri-urban areas of Pakistan must pay for health care and receive it from private clinics, hospitals or from pharmacists.

Several Afghan women's NGOs work in the health field, trying to fill the gaps from various angles, including provision of health education, running small clinics and providing mother and child health care. These groups sometimes work in conjunction with international NGOs, as implementing partners. This is a good symbiosis as the Afghan women improve outreach and the international agency improves access to resources.


Inside Afghanistan, education for girls and boys has been severely restricted under Taliban rule. Girls' education was forbidden. Female teachers could not work and many schools for boys were closed. Girls' education has since been provided through home schools, often run by private individuals or communities, or non-governmental organizations. Shuhada and Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan are examples of women-led organizations running women's and girls' education programs, while CARE International and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan support a large number of home schools across Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in the refugee context education for girls has been something of a success story. From a reluctance to even discuss girls' education in the 1980s, Afghan refugee communities have become so enthusiastic that demand far outstrips supply. Much of this enthusiasm has come from seeing the few female role models (doctors, teachers, NGO directors) who are educated and earn an additional income for the family, yet adhere to Islamic and Afghan cultural mores. In urban areas, however, families must pay for education which is provided by private schools and generally prohibitive in terms of cost. Many Afghan women's organizations and Afghan women are involved in the provision of education in the refugee context. Such groups run schools, adult literacy classes and English language training. There are not enough secondary schools for Afghan girls and boys, and very few opportunities for continuing into tertiary education. Moreover, there are very few opportunities for finding work after graduating from high school. As a result, girls as young as fourteen marry diaspora Afghans and young men use smuggling groups to try to emigrate abroad in order to study and/or find work.


In Afghanistan, the Taliban outlawed women's employment although some women did work in health clinics, hospitals and other areas related to health. In some cases women were able to negotiate employment through international agencies. However the vast majority of women could not work outside the home. Before the Taliban's restrictions, in urban areas women held a wide variety of jobs from teachers and health professionals to lawyers and judges. In traditional households in rural areas, life did not change as dramatically in terms of activities, as women continued to run the home and contribute to household income by raising livestock, supporting agricultural production and carpet weaving.

In this sector, the involvement of Afghan men's and women's organizations centers around a variety of handicrafts, tailoring, small livestock or computer and secretarial skills among the refugee population in Pakistan. Women and girls are extremely enthusiastic about learning skills which could earn them an extra income. Capacity for providing training is good but most organizations are not in a position to provide any sort of follow up or to achieve sustainability. Handicraft projects need good marketing and outlets in order to become sustainable. These projects risk becoming sweat shops where women and children work for a pittance or short-term funds, with no long-term benefit accruing to those attending. Sometimes the provision of small business loans can be helpful, but microcredit in the refugee context is difficult because families are so mobile. Livestock projects can only be useful where women already have some experience and where the training includes basic veterinary training. With so many young women having computer and secretarial skills and so few jobs where their families would feel that they are in a respectable environment, there is a number of frustrated young women with skills but no real work experience. In all cases there has been little attention paid to training women on how to run a business and how to market one's products and skills.

Next Steps

Recent events in Afghanistan pose both a challenge and an opportunity for Afghan women's organizations and networks. Afghan women leaders in Pakistan say they are keen to return and rebuild but are concerned about the security situation in Afghanistan. The international community should invest in initiatives already being undertaken by Afghan women to support their communities. This will be the bridge to strengthen civil society in post-conflict Afghanistan. Attached is a list of key Afghan women's organizations providing humanitarian assistance inside and outside Afghanistan.

Women's Commission Activities in the Region

The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children has monitored the situation of Afghan refugee and internally displaced women and girls for the past decade. The Women's Commission's Technical Advisor, based in Peshawar, Pakistan, has spent the past two years traveling to camps and remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan to evaluate and improve the conditions facing women and girls. Based on discussions with Afghan women and their communities, the Technical Advisor makes recommendations to the international community regarding ways to improve protection and assistance. The Technical Advisor also supports Afghan women's organizations in Pakistan, providing advice and training to help women leaders to play a greater role in aid operations, including planning and delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Further information or reports on Afghanistan are available on the Women's Commission's website at

Key Afghan women's organizations providing humanitarian assistance

Agency and date established
Main Activities
Afghan Institute of Learning
Health, education, awareness raising on rights
Afghan Women's Council
Advocacy, education, health, some relief work
Afghan Women's Educational Centre
Early 1990s
Counseling (trauma and other), education, some relief work
Afghan Women's Foundation Details not available
Afghan Women's Network
Networking body for Afghan women, training provision
Afghan Women's Resource Centre
Health, education/literacy, income generation, relief work
Afghan Women's Welfare Department Income generation, education, health
DACAAR Sewing Project
Established income generation project
Health and Development Centre for Afghan Women Schools, income generation for urban refugees of Peshawar
Rawzana Awareness raising on women's rights and legal advice provision
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
Advocacy, some relief work
Shuhada Organisation
Health, education, relief
WDPA Income generation in Chitral, education, some relief work
Women's English Language Programme

1996 (independent local NGO)

English language teaching

Women´s Commission for Refugee Women & Children
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