Fulbright Scholar Recalls Her Struggle To Empower Afghan Women

By Afzal Khan
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington – The co-founder of a grassroots development organization in Afghanistan says women have come a long way since the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001, but it has been an uphill struggle.

Nilofar Sakhi, who was executive director of the Herat-based Women Activities and Social Services Association (WASSA) until July 2005, recalled this struggle in a recent interview with the Washington File.

Sakhi said WASSA faced the daunting task of raising women’s voices in a patriarchal, tribal society that was slow to change even after the removal of the fundamentalist Taliban regime that denied women education and jobs.

She said WASSA’s aim is to promote women’s rights in a democratic environment and provide women access to education and jobs. WASSA is active in the four western Afghan provinces of Herat, Badghis, Ghowr and Farah and focuses its programs primarily on rural areas.

“If we are going to change the situation in Afghanistan, we have to focus on the remote areas of the country,” Sakhi said.  She urged the country’s urban-based women’s organizations to replicate WASSA’s work in the rural parts of western Afghanistan.

She acknowledged that security remains a concern for WASSA’s programs in those remote areas, but said the results justify the danger.  She said that she returned to one of these remote villages a year and a half after WASSA had established a literacy program to find 78 women who could read and write where previously there were none. She said those who originally attended the literacy programs went on to teach others.

WASSA also engages in hygiene education in these areas, sending out teams to go from house to house in villages and distribute kits containing soap and toothbrushes. The health teams hold meetings to discuss proper nutrition, pregnancy and childbirth issues, and the prevention of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea. Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest rates of child mortality from birth through infancy, according to U.N. statistics.

Another important task for the organization was to win the support of local religious leaders on women’s rights.  The mullahs are powerful voices in Afghan society, and while many still disapprove of women’s education, some came forward in support of women’s rights.

Whenever the organization went to a rural village to set up women’s literacy centers and encourage schooling for girls, WASSA representatives had to meet with village elders and mullahs to overcome their objections to women’s education.

Ultimately, WASSA found some strong allies among the clerics, and when the organization invited some of them to participate in radio and television programs on women’s rights, several embraced the opportunity to explain women’s rights in the context of Islam.

“Those mullahs who were won over incorporated verses from the Quran that proclaimed women’s equal rights in rallies for democracy in the villages as well as in radio and television programs,” Sakhi said.

Sakhi said that one of WASSA’s most significant tasks was to address domestic violence against women and tackle the growing problem of female self-immolation.  Forced marriages and lack of access to education and jobs lead some Afghan women to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire.  In Herat alone, there were more than 100 such incidents reported in 2003.  Sakhi said that the prevention of female self-immolation is a long-term project because of its roots in Afghanistan’s male-dominated, traditional family structure.

Although WASSA’s success has been mixed, it opened the doors for abused women to file complaints, Sakhi said.  Severe cases were referred to local government authorities or the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, while others were addressed through family counseling.

Sakhi said WASSA also conducted workshops to make women aware of their legal rights in a democratic state.

“At first even the educated women of Herat city could not express what their legal rights were,” she said. “But after a year and a half of these workshops, even uneducated women from the provinces spoke up about their rights.”

“Women now demanded to be educated and even get jobs in the business sector that was considered a man’s domain. Some requested car-driving lessons,” she added.

WASSA held workshops for female candidates and voters during elections and conducted poster and pamphlet campaigns to encourage women’s participation at the polls. Sakhi said it was difficult for women to become politically active without the permission of their husbands or fathers but that the workshops provided an acceptable place for the women to gather and be trained because they were open to male relatives.

WASSA also promoted women’s political participation through a women’s radio station it helped establish in Herat in October 2003.  Radio Sahar (Dawn) became instrumental in empowering women and promoting voter turnout during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005, she said.  WASSA’s allies among the clergy supported the organization’s goals by making statements about women’s rights on the station.

WASSA also seeks to help women become independent wage earners through income generation projects across the four western provinces.

“We offered vocational training in embroidery, quilt making and carpet weaving.” Sakhi said. According to her, quilts are a lucrative market.

Sakhi is now a Fulbright Scholar completing a master’s degree in the United States on conflict transformation and peace building. She expects to return to WASSA after completing her studies in May 2007.

She hopes to obtain funding to open a branch office in Kabul.  She is also interested in extending WASSA’s operations to Kandahar, but says the security situation currently prohibits that.

Sakhi said that women’s empowerment in Afghanistan depends in part on improved security and the elevation of the minister for women’s affairs to a Cabinet-level position.  But most of all, she said it requires a long-term commitment to the issue.   “It takes a long time to change minds,” she said.