Opening a new era for the women of Afghanistan

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By Jennifer O'Riordan

Palwasha Saboori is an example of what an empowered woman in Afghanistan can achieve. After seeing the plight of marginalized women, Palwasha left her full-time government job and established the Association for Defence of Women’s Rights (ADWRO).

A strong and independent young woman, Palwasha says: “Though I am a young woman and also a wife, I have no problem working in Afghanistan. I think that intelligent men cannot solve women’s legal cases, but I can.”

Palwasha learned how to turn her idea into reality, including applying for grants, connecting with donors and developing programs, with the direct support of the Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSFo) and Counterpart International as part of the Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society (I-PACS). ACSFo is one of seven organizations that form part of Counterpart’s I-PACS strategy to strengthen civil society in Afghanistan.

Today, Palwasha’s organization conducts training, education and awareness programs on how to prevent the exploitation of Afghan women and children.

Since Palwasha founded ADWRO five years ago, the organization has expanded from one location and now has three offices in Kabul, as well as one in each of the provinces of Parwan, Kepisa, Jalalabad, Mazar-e Sharif and Badakhshan. She has a staff of 56.

“Now we have a safe-house in Kabul city where we keep women and children who are fleeing exploitation,” she says. “Then we solve their legal problems and maintain contact with their families.”

Developing Women’s Role

There was a time when Afghan women were able to attend college and work in medicine, law and many other professions.

However, when Taliban rule took hold in 1996, all of this changed. Girls were not permitted to attend school after the age of 12, and in some regions were not allowed to continue schooling at any level. Intelligent, skilled women were forced to suppress their talents and those who had yet to develop their strengths were denied the opportunity, and the right to do so.

As Afghanistan enters a new era, people are realizing the potential of one of the country’s biggest untapped development resources – women.

“Women are capable, as capable as men, of contributing in every conceivable way, in all walks of life,” says Mary Fontaine, Senior Gender Advisor with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Fontaine has followed women’s issues in the region since the late 1970s.

From the time Counterpart launched the USAID-funded I-PACS in 2005, it was clear that addressing the role of women in Afghan society was going to be a huge part of the program. Today, half of the major organizations working with Counterpart are either women-led or women-focused.

Encouraging women to get involved in the development process remains an essential component of Counterpart’s work in Afghanistan as the USAID-backed I-PACS program moves through its second phase.

Women are being given the opportunity to show how they can help shape the future of Afghan civil society. Counterpart’s programs also reach women who are homemakers, trying to raise their level of education.

The Afghan Women’s Education Center (AWEC) is an organization that combines vocational training with advocacy and participation for girls and women. Like ACSFo, today it is an Intermediate Service Organization (ISO) that directly supports civil society growth.

“In the beginning, we were just an educational center that focused on illiterate women and girls,” says Hafizullah Sajid, who is AWEC’s I-PACS program manager. Now, AWEC also “tries to engage women in the political process – or at least make their voice and comments heard in the decision-making process.”

Getting them into the process also means providing basic and vocational education. Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. In rural areas, where three-fourths of all Afghans live, 90 percent of women and more than 60 percent of men are illiterate, according to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

“If you educate a female, you educate [an] entire family,” says Nazir Ahmad Mohmand, Country Director of Basic Education and Employable Skill Training (BEST), which is supported by Counterpart through the I-PACS program. “If you educate a family, you change an entire country,” he says.

Ramin Nouroozi, Counterpart’s Director of Community Policy and Engagement in Kabul, agrees: “If mothers in Afghanistan take this issue seriously, I’m sure that we will have a very speedy movement to our development.”

USAID’s Fontaine says Afghans have become more accepting of educating women, with 70 percent of them approving of young girls attending school. That is almost double the “critical mass” of public opinion that is needed in order to ensure that a concept like education for girls becomes an accepted practice, she adds.

Reaching Out to Afghan Men

Providing women with skills and education is essential to Afghanistan’s development. Raising awareness among the population of that role is one of I-PACS’s goals.

Hassan Enzergul, a day laborer from the Eastern province of Ghazni, is married and has three daughters. After participating in an awareness program in his village, including workshops on the position of women in Afghan society and Islamic traditions, Hassan learned that education and medical care were among women’s most basic rights.

“I didn’t let my elder daughter go to school, because we didn’t deem this important for the girls. And I did not let my wife go out of our home,” Hassan explains. “I am now convinced that this is not consistent with Islam. It is too late for my elder daughter, but I intend to enroll my younger daughters in school.”

Enzergul’s attitude also changed regarding the roles of other women in his family saying, “In the past we didn’t let women vote, but in this election, my wife and my sisters all participated. I led and took them myself to the polling center. We all voted.”

“Many people have benefitted” from the workshops, he continued. “Most of them, like me, didn’t know, just didn’t understand, that it is right for women and girls to get an education and to participate.”

The views of community leaders, especially village elders in rural areas of Afghanistan, weigh heavily on Afghans and strongly impact community behavior. Counterpart and its local partner organizations make a conscious effort to reach out to these village elders and engage their support for local efforts.

USAID’s Fontaine agrees with this strategy. “Everyone has to go through the elders, the gatekeepers I call them. The elders, the mullahs, the fathers, those men who have control over what happens in their villages,” she says. “You have to go through them, but I think when framing our request properly they’re open to it. Many, many, many are open to it.”