"There is no life for women in Afghanistan," Hosina, a 28-year-old mother of four, tells Medair's Emma Le Beau.
Emma hears this same refrain again and again as she travels into remote communities in Afghanistan's Central Highlands. The women she meets are locked into a daily cycle of back-breaking work to ensure the survival of their families.
"The tasks of every minute of each day revolve around ensuring enough food for their family to eat, enough water to drink, enough grass for their animals, and enough firewood and dung for fuel, heating, and cooking," says Emma. "The very notion of free time is completely unknown to them."
"Our work is very difficult," echoes 30-year-old Wazi, mother to nine children. "We have also very different types of work. We are multi-skilled, not like the men who only have one job to do."
Assessing the Real Needs
For years, Medair has worked in isolated Afghan regions to improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable. For instance, in areas where maternal mortality was appallingly commonplace, thousands of women now have life-saving access to skilled obstetric care.
But in Afghanistan, as in many countries where Medair works, learning about the needs of the most vulnerable too often means talking only to the men who put themselves forward.
"That's why we make special efforts to reach both men and women," says Emma, who meets directly with women at their homes as they do their daily chores. "That way we get the real story."
In Their Own Words
Sadly, the real story of women in Afghanistan is a life of mind-numbing routine and severe hardship:
"We cannot sleep for one minute during the day, from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m., the whole day we are busy," says 40-year-old Horo.
"I have never left this area since I was born here," says Wazi. "Twice I went to the clinic but that is the only time I have left this home."
"I worry about not having enough food," says Hawa, a widow. "This is all I can think about. Then I worry about heating for the winter and how cold we will be."
The lack of safe drinking water or sanitary latrines is also a major problem in these rural regions. Women often gather water from dirty ponds or from contaminated rivers downstream from defecation sites.
"We met a woman collecting the family's water from a dirty pond," says Quentin Williams, Medair's WatSan Project Manager. "She told us that most people have diarrhoea all the time, and that five or six children die every year from diarrhoea in this village alone."
The Importance of Safe Water and Sanitation
In this project, funded by the European Commission and private donors, Medair works to improve access to safe drinking water in these communities, and also trains community members to promote the importance of proper hygiene. We involve women in the site selection for all new water points, because they are the ones who primarily collect the water.
Sanitation improvements are also needed to improve overall health. Women are in great need of latrines that provide adequate privacy.
"Women tend not to drink very much to avoid having to urinate frequently," says Quentin. "This can increase the risk of urinary infections."
As a result, Medair is installing latrines that are four times more expensive than the minimum standard, because Medair's enhanced latrines have a door and a lock to provide better privacy.
"We promote improved sanitation in an area where the local norm is open defecation," adds Quentin, "so building a quality, long-lasting latrine that can be used in private is a critical starting point."
New Opportunities for Women
Medair also operates a road-building project, funded by MCC/CFGB and private donors, that delivers multiple local benefits. Workers are paid cash to build the road, which allows them to buy food for their families for winter. Meanwhile, the new road itself opens up access to health clinics, education, and new markets. Traders have started using this road and bring their goods close to the people, which increases the diversity of food and goods available. Going to the market can now be done in one day instead of a three-day round trip that is only appropriate for men to undertake.
"The possibility that women may now be able to go to the market themselves and choose the food and be empowered to manage the diet for their family is an amazing change for these women, who previously may never have left their village," says Emma. "I am excited about the opportunities it opens up for women, the sights they will see, and the new perspective they will gain from something so simple as being able to go and do the shopping themselves."
Dignity and Life
Dignity is one of our core values at Medair-we strive to treat all people in a way that acknowledges and respects their innate, God-given dignity. For the often-forgotten women of rural Afghanistan, this approach makes a powerful impact in their lives.
"The women are appreciative of all the help that Medair is bringing," concludes Emma, "but just as important to them is that we take an interest in them as women, asking their opinions and considering their difficulties, in a culture where women are rarely included in such ways.
"Within the big picture of providing improved health and sanitation, it is the small but important things like putting locks on latrines and listening to personal opinions that show our respect," she adds. "Being treated in this positive way gives these women hope."