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18 May 2017

Humaira Rasuli, Medica Afghanistan: “These roles for men and women are not laid down in Sharia law.”

What is life like for women and girls today in Afghanistan? According to the Afghan constitution they have the same rights as men. These include the rights to education, health and physical integrity. The actual conditions that women live under are revealed by a representative study conducted by the Afghan Ministry of Health. Our colleagues at Medica Afghanistan confirmed in an interview: women are experiencing violence, are generally excluded from school, and suffer injustices on a daily basis. With a programme of neighbourhood women’s groups and family counselling, Medica Afghanistan wants to reach out to women and strengthen them.

For fifteen years, Medica Afghanistan has been providing psychosocial, medical and legal counselling to women and girls. Contact points include hospitals, prisons, courts and women’s houses. Staff at the organisation have to remain inventive, finding new ways to reach out to women and offer them safe spaces for receiving counselling and sharing their experiences with each other. Some of the reasons for this can be seen in the average life conditions of women and girls in Afghanistan.

Reaching out to women and strengthening them in peer groups

Since so many women experience violence, but only rarely seek help, it is especially important to have low-threshold access to support such as the offer provided by guided peer groups. These are often initiated by women who have already successfully benefitted from support at Medica Afghanistan. The comprehensive programme of advice and support provided by the psychological counsellors at Medica Afghanistan leaves some survivors feeling strong enough to train to be a focaliser for a peer group. Humaira Rasuli, Director of Medica Afghanistan (MA):

“Our volunteer peer group leaders can reach local women and girls in their neighbourhood, in their immediate surroundings. The group leaders provide a safe space – often their own apartment – to the women and girls where they can share experiences and learn from each other.”

The participating women then often have a long-term impact on their families and communities as agents of change, helping to create a more just, less violent society. At the beginning of 2016 there were already 16 of these peer groups, with almost 200 participants, in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. More groups have since been initiated. Humaira Rasuli: “A further new idea is to train the peer group leaders as teachers, so they can include basic literacy lessons in their group meetings. In our existing literacy courses the young women and girls have already shown their passion for the issues of women’s rights and sex education. In fact, they often almost forget to open their maths books! (she laughs)”

Educating families and awakening women’s rights

A new focus supplementing this approach in the coming months will be family counselling, since most women subjected to violence only seek help within their family. The majority of women even find it acceptable for their husband to hit them, whether it is because they burnt the food or simply disagreed with him. They are simply lacking the knowledge that violence against women is an injustice. Vida Faizi, Director of the Psychosocial and Health Program:

“Many women were never allowed to go to school. Some of them can’t even write their own name. They rarely go out of the house and obey all of their husband’s instructions: this is simply how they were brought up to live.”

Passing on knowledge is one matter, but changing attitudes and awareness is another. By mid-2018, Medica Afghanistan intends to advise and have a positive impact on at least 50 families and their, often very large, social environment. The need to resolve problems within the family is a very strong feature of Afghan society – although the willingness to accept external support is growing. Medica Afghanistan has already achieved numerous success stories in the area of legal advice and family mediation. Now the psychosocial counselling is to be expanded to include families. When violence occurs within a family, a longer-term impact can be achieved by including all family members in the attempts to identify causes and solutions.

In fact, it is often the case that several members of the family are directly or indirectly involved in forms of violence such as psychological violence, denial of food, torture, sexualised violence or forced prostitution. Humaira Rasuli: “In many young families the husbands have jobs which take them away from home a lot. But violence against women still takes place. Many mothers-in-law are more dangerous than the husbands! They were previously victims themselves and now they are repeating the pattern of violence. This is why it is so important to break these spirals. Young people are often more open to change and a new way of living.” 

Campaigning for women’s rights in Afghanistan and enforcing them

In order to achieve this change towards more gender justice, Medica Afghanistan is carrying out practical measures such as political advocacy work and intensive public awareness work with religious leaders and in the judiciary, police and healthcare sectors. Humaira Rasuli: “In these group training sessions we often begin with very basic questions on gender roles. The important aspect is the insights gained by the participants: these roles for men and women are not laid down in Sharia law. If it is us as a society which sets these standards, then we as a society can also change them.” According to a current UN study on the images of masculinity in Arab countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, more than a quarter of the men indicate they are open to more equal rights between men and women. They condemn violence against women, favour women’s rights, actively support women in leadership positions, and as men they want to play a role in bringing up children. This opportunity for change is also available in Afghanistan.

Background: What is life like for women and girls today in Afghanistan?

The Afghan Ministry of Health study reveals the following. Among married Afghan women under 49, on average they married at 18, with a high probability that they were minors and forced into the marriage. One in eight gave birth to their first child before they were 20. In general they did not go to school (84 per cent).

The average woman lives in a household of eight persons, with half of these under 15. An average Afghan wife has five children – the number of children is lower for mothers who were able to go to school. Only 13 per cent of the women had work at the time of the study, whereas almost half of the men surveyed had employment outside of their home. According to figures from 2008, 87 per cent of all women had experienced at least one form of violence: physical, sexualised, psychological or forced marriage.

One in five of those affected by violence seek help, most of them do this within their family (80 per cent). Important external contact points for survivors of sexualised violence are still hospitals and health clinics. This is one reason why Medica Afghanistan is currently building up its counselling points in hospitals in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. However, for more than half of the women, permission from a male head of the family is needed even for medical treatment. In total, 90 per cent of the women have problems which interfere with their ability to ensure access to healthcare provision.