This morning, Sadiqa and I attended the monthly meeting of Afghan Women’s Advocates Team (AWAT) in the offices of EWC (Elimination of Poverty for Women and Children). Although we arrived thirty minutes late, it did not surprise me that the meeting had not yet started: over the last two weeks, I have been forced to acclimate to “Afghan time.” I was served tea and cakes, while the representatives of nine women’s NGOs greeted one another and caught up on missed events.
On the drive to EWC’s offices, Sadiqa had explained to me that since Oruj’s objective is to improve the situation of girls and young women through education, Oruj must also be firmly invested in all vital issues that affect the welfare of girls and women. This broad, integrated approach to humanitarian work is one I strongly support. You cannot expect women to stay abreast of political developments if they must work eighteen hour days in order to support themselves and their families. You cannot expect a woman to earn a salary equivalent to her male counterpart when she is far less likely to be literate than he is. You cannot expect parents to choose to educate their daughters if the latter’s honour, physical, and mental well-being is placed at risk every time she walks to school. Despite the practical difficulties of an integrative approach to improving the status of women and girls, it is absolutely necessary to address all of the challenges that women experience, as the latter are all intertwined. Irrespective of geographical location, large numbers of women face a web of poverty, illiteracy, gender-based violence (GBV), discrimination, and patriarchy that is so tightly woven that it creates a dense and seemingly impervious barrier to the advancement of the female sex.
The specific topic of this meeting was a certain $2.5 million grant proposal for an Anti- Violence Against Women project entitled Community Welfare Centers for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. There was a general consensus among the representatives that women, as mothers, must take at least some responsibility for the epidemic of gender-based violence (GBV). As the primary caregivers in Afghan society, women traditionally have treated their daughters and sons differently. For example, female children may be punished for any and every infraction, while sons are usually not; this creates an expectation of certain behaviors toward females that is transmitted to the next generation. Therefore, AWAT believes that it is necessary to train/educate women about the mental and physical repercussions of their everyday behavior toward their children.
However, that is not to suggest that the members of AWAT do not hold Afghan men responsible for their own actions. In fact, the rest of the two-hour meeting was spent discussing how to train *those who interact with women*—men, public servants, and religious authorities—in how to prevent GBV and what courses of action to take when GBV occurs. Specifically, AWAT’s proposal argues for the creation of advocacy committees to work with and within courts, hospitals, prisons, and religious institutions. Most radically, however, the proposal calls for 1100 mullahs, or Muslim religious clerics/teachers, throughout Afghanistan to be educated about GBV. Why? It is customary for Afghan women to go to mullahs—almost never to the police or other public officials—for guidance and protection. Traditionally, especially in rural areas, if a battered woman or girl went to a mullah for guidance, he would give her a taweez (holy words written on a piece of paper) for her to leave under her husband’s chair, or to boil in his tea. It is believed that this would stop the husband from beating her in the future. Working within this context then, educating and training mullahs about GBV could have far-reaching benefits, as it would indirectly aid women who would otherwise be inaccessible to the staff of Community Welfare Center.
By the end of the meeting, the heat had become oppressive and the flies a enormous nuisance… but all the NGOs, including Oruj Learning Center, had approved every pillar of the proposal. As we left the meeting, Sadiqa and I continued to discuss the value of AWAT’s endeavor—and in particular, its significance with regard to the Oruj’s goal of improving the lives of Afghan girls. “It’s all connected,” I thought as we drove through Kabul. Girls education will never be supported unless it is seen as a safe and respectable path for the daughters and sisters of Afghanistan; educating girls will never been seen as safe if those who attend schools are beaten or harassed on their way to or from school or within their communities; and girls and women will never be safe from violence and harassment unless people are educated and trained to prevent GBV. Ultimately, all of these issues must be addressed in order to truly better the lives of Afghan girls and women. By choosing to actively participate in a group such as AWAT, Oruj is attempting to overcome the tunnel vision it might otherwise incur, as its mandate centers on a single project: promoting girls education in Wardak and Nangrahar provinces. Nevertheless, since Oruj seeks to bring about a sustainable change in the lives of women and girls, its decision to support and contribute to a coalition like AWAT seems to be a wise one.
Posted By Alison Long (Afghanistan)
Posted Jun 21st, 2006