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10 May 2016

Humaira Rasuli, Director Medica Afghanistan: "Women are not silent anymore."

In April, four staff members of Medica Afghanistan, together with Jeannette Böhme, Advocacy and Human Rights Officer at medica mondiale, had the opportunity to visit some related organisations, such as the bzfo (Behandlungszentrum für Folteropfer - Treatment Centre for Torture Victims) and to talk to political representatives in Berlin. Subsequently, at the main office of medica mondiale in Cologne, they met colleagues from the communication department to share first-hand knowledge about the situation of women in Afghanistan and the solidarity among them in this serious political situation.

We talked to Humaira Rasuli, Director of Medica Afghanistan, her Deputy Director Saifora Ibrahim Paktiss, Helai Sohak, Office-Director in Mazar-e-Sharif and Vida Faizi, Head of the Psychosocial Counselling Department.

To what extent do women’s rights on paper differ from women’s rights experienced in real life in Afghanistan?

Humaira Rasuli: I think the situation did improve temporarily and you can see some positive effects on the position of women. But in the past twelve months the security situation has been deteriorating. According to Parliament, 30% of the country is controlled by Taliban. At least 11,000 civilians were killed and injured during 2015. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission declared 2015 as the deadliest year for women in Afghanistan.

We have thousands of laws and policies in place, but in practice women’s rights have been ignored. Discrimination and bias against women are very common, especially in the judiciary system. From day to day women are becoming more disappointed with the situation in our country, the trend towards crisis and the declining attention of the international community.
The fall of Kunduz Province put fear in the hearts. The impact on women’s networks, on the work of civil society organisations, and especially on women human rights defenders, was negative: threats, discrimination and sometimes even targeted killing.

Nonetheless, I would say that empowerment and education programmes had a positive effect on the position of women. Women are not silent anymore. They do not feel that they are trapped in a cage. They have a voice to raise their concerns and express their needs. We have such women in our country.

Solidarity among women – what does that mean to you and how does the concept of solidarity affect your work?

Helai Sohak: We have seen a lot of changes in the position of women because their solidarity supports the rise of women. In particular, networking among women and collective efforts for women's rights have been partly successful. Unfortunately, during the last two years we can recognize that there have been some changes regarding the solidarity of women, especially in Mazar-i-Sharif city. Most of the women there maintain their position about women's rights but no longer work as feminist activists. This is because some of them were subject to restrictions from key responsible persons in the government. So solidarity is needed more than ever.

Protest and political action live from their symbols – for instance, the raised fist in a Venus-symbol. What symbols do you use to visualize women’s rights?

Vida Faizi: Usually in Afghanistan this symbol with the fist in a Venus-symbol is visible and meaningful to show the political action of Afghan women, to show that one hand for all means "together for women's rights". But Medica Afghanistan does not often work with these images. Mainly we come together, talk about issues, go to the meetings, and raise awareness of the rights of women. There are cultural differences in how we can work for the defence of women's rights.

Although advocacy work is integrated into all programmes at Medica Afghanistan, we always start individually. We raise awareness about their rights whether it is in Islam or in the national law, that these rights are fundamental rights - it is something you have and not something that people give to you. And we encourage them to start to talk about it with their peers first, to practice how to talk about it with friends and colleagues, later going to their families. Slowly, slowly, they become brave enough to talk about their rights within their community.

So protesting and fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan starts with the individual, then moves on to the family, then the community?

Vida Faizi: Yes, this is involved in all the activity at Medica Afghanistan. During the counselling sessions it starts. Of course the women first come to us because they cannot bear violence any more. But they do not know that violence does not have to be part of their married life, or that both Sharia and national laws prohibit violence against women. Even psychological, emotional violence is against the law. Rights of women include the right to education, right to work, right to health and the right to obtain justice if someone violates their rights.

Are there feminist role models or idols who could be an orientation or inspiration for young Afghan women? Do you know them? Or are you the role models?

Saifora Ibrahim Paktiss: We are trying to be! (laughs) At the moment we have some very good and prominent role models as well as idols that stand at the forefront of calls for women’s rights. Some of them are women role models with regards to women's rights, some are good speakers and leaders in the health sector, and some are strong women in the education sector. And we have very good female role models in the political sectors, especially regarding aid and development and justice.
We have symbols of encouragement and empowerment for women and they do follow them, but it is a pity that in our country there is hardly any unified or countrywide communication or media outreach. So I must say that their fame is limited to a certain number of provinces where women have come out of their homes, are working, discuss these issues with each other and listen to radios and TV-channels. So their prominence is much more limited in the 17 or more provinces in the remote areas – let us say in at least in half of the country. That is the other side of the picture.