Afghanistan: How women can and should be central to the peace process

 25th Nov 2020

Interview with Meena, Gender Specialist for CARE Afghanistan 

I was born in Pakistan as a refugee in 1985, I completed my Master’s in International Relations from NUML Pakistan. I have worked 3 years as advocacy manager advocating for women rights and women participation in economic markets, Worked 3 years as Women Economic Empowerment Manager and Gender Focal Person, during my duty as WEE manager I have succeeded to bring awareness regarding Women Rights and economic opportunities among the vulnerable segments. As of now, I am working as a Gender Specialist in CAFG since last year to empower IDP and returnee women by raising their awareness and help them improve their lives. So far, I have provided awareness-raising to almost 169 women beneficiaries. What motivates me was the vulnerability of Afghan women living in poor conditions without knowing about their rights and roles they can play. Women are a precious human resource of the country but unfortunately, they have been deprived of their basic rights due to instability and cultural barriers. I am committed towards my work and to raise voice for Afghan women enabling them having a better life and future. 

What made you decide to get into this line of work? (working with women) 

As women are a vulnerable segment of this country and they have been deprived for a long period of time, and there is strong need to focus on them, I decided to work with women and for women. 

What motivates you to do this work and what drives you every day?  

I have strong empathy towards those women living in vulnerable conditions. Women can understand better the needs of other women, so my will to enable them to have a better life motivates me to work more for them. 

Do you come into contact with vulnerable women as part of your role?  What kind of work do you do with them? 

As part of my job as a gender specialist in CARE Afghanistan LAMP (Livelihoods Advancement for Marginalised Populations) project, I am in direct and regular contact with vulnerable women. I work with them to analyze their needs, provide them awareness sessions on women rights, women roles, women empowerment and PSHEA (Protection from Sexual Harassment, Exploitation and Abuse). Besides CARE Afghanistan, I have worked with these vulnerable women for their skill development and providing them assistance on achieving economic empowerment. (all activities were part of the project) 

Is there one particular woman you've met who has been impacted by gender-based violence whose story stays with you? Please tell us a bit about her story.  Were you able to help her, if so, how? 

As I mentioned before, during my career I have also worked in skill development of the women residing in Women Protection Centres. Some women were burnt, their partners cut whose nose or ears, and they were survivors of GBV. As a safety and security protocol, I am not able to mention her name but will share a bit of her story. She was 18 and a very beautiful girl when her addicted father sold her and asked her to marry a 70-year-old man. When she showed resistance, she was beaten up badly by the addicted father and shaved her head and forced to get married so she ran away and took refuge by police. Later she was transferred to one of WPC (Women’s Protection Centres) in Kabul. We worked with her and taught her how to grow mushrooms, established a mushroom farm for her and she sells those mushrooms for their own (WPC established) restaurant. The amount will help her reestablish a normal life back to the community (hopefully) 

Tell us more about how and why women have been the main victims of war in Afghanistan? 

When war happens, women also face death and disabilities. Yet, even if they are not the casualty or injured, they lose their fathers, brothers, husband and sons. They lose their breadwinner which makes them vulnerable and they might end up with begging or like selling their children. A majority of women are illiterate and have no skill so they are more prone to economic violence. 

Tell us more about why you think the rates of gender-based violence are so high in Afghanistan and what should be done to improve the situation. 

Lack of knowledge, male-dominated social setting, illiteracy, cultural setting, unemployment, poverty and weak laws are the main factors for increased GBV.  Some main steps that can be taken to decrease this rate are to end poverty, increase employment opportunities, skill development, education and transformation of negative cultural setups can help. Though transformation is not easy, we need to focus on men as well as they need to understand and respect women’s rights. 

Can you please explain how COVID has impacted the peace process and how COVID has impacted women in Afghanistan? 

Regarding the peace process, I have no comment as I feel it to be something useless. COVID has no doubt increased GBV, health consequences and economic violence to women. Their unpaid workload has increased yet they are the one having the least nutrition.   

Why is it important for women's voices to be heard in discussions around the peace process in Afghanistan? 

As women in Afghanistan were the most vulnerable and were among those who suffered a lot during the Taliban regime, their presence is a must in the peace process. Women suffer at every point, directly by getting killed or indirectly by losing their loved ones. Women voice must be heard because if women are not present in the process it means they are not dealing with almost 52% of the Afghan population (UN Women). Women contribute to be a major human resource and if their rights, roles and voices are not heard again we will fail to achieve the development and harmony. 

Can there be true peace in Afghanistan if women aren't at peace in their homes and workplaces? (in terms of gender-based violence) 

In terms of GBV, we cannot have true peace in women are not feeling safe at homes and the workplace.  

In what types of settings (home, informal workplaces, on the street) are women most at risk of gender-based violence? 

Women in third world countries like Afghanistan faces GBV at every point, as this society had not yet fully accepted the place of women. Women are facing GBV at streets, homes, workplace and even in ministries. 

What are the key drivers of gender-based violence? 

Lack of knowledge among people, wrong translation of Islamic knowledge, unemployment, cultural and social barriers and customs. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic (lockdown, increased pressure on health services etc..) exacerbated gender-based violence in Afghanistan? 

As read in different reports majority of women has no or less access to health care services, they have no permission to access health services due to distance, lack of money or are not permitted at all. The COVID 19 have increased pressure on women to take care for the elderly and sick leading women towards chances of contracting the virus, intimate partner violence due to the presence of husband at home all day, unemployment the major cause have exacerbated GBV in Afghanistan. 

What needs to happen for women to be free from violence? 

A lot needs to be done. Firstly, we need to change the mindset of male members of the society to accept women as equal half. We need to increase awareness among people about women rights and roles in Islamic as well as democratic context. We need to activate laws and empower women to use those laws. We need to empower women regarding their rights, roles, freedom, raising their voices, and make them economically independent. 

What do you want the world to know about the issues facing women in Afghanistan and how it affects their lives? 

There are several issues but what I want to highlight is that freedom of speech and freedom of mobility is restricted usually by male members of the family, women cannot take their own lives decision which leads them towards living in vulnerable conditions. Like most of the women are not allowed to give birth at hospitals and instead, they are forced to give birth at homes, mostly causing serious adverse effects and or even death. 

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