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06 June 2016

“Women’s rights are being used as an alibi during the peace talks,” says Saifora Paktiss from Medica Afghanistan

In April, members of our communications staff had the opportunity to interview four key staff from Medica Afghanistan at our Cologne headquarters. They shared firsthand knowledge and impressions of their work, the ‘alibi policies’ of the Afghan government and how the women remain optimistic in spite of the obstacles they face.

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.

Regarding women’s rights in Afghanistan: What are your greatest hopes and aims for the near future?

Saifora Paktiss: “We are hoping to get together, to work together and to be unified in order to stand together and make a change. I mean, we know about all the challenges we have to face in our country, but we are still hopeful.”

What kind of challenges for women in Afghanistan are you referring to?

Saifora Paktiss: “The good thing about this government is: Quotas for women have been accepted and implemented. Whether this has been done based on the right criteria or not, the promises made to bring women into different positions at the decision-making level have been fulfilled. And that was at the very least a gesture. What is missing in our society and our government when it comes to women’s rights, is unity, coordination and support for each other.”

Can you describe in detail how the quotas for women have been implemented?

Saifora Paktiss: “The women nominated for various key positions previously may have had political connections with other political bodies. They are not coming straight from women’s rights organisations, which is a pity. Honestly, when a country has been at war for the past 30 to 40 years and still is a conflict region, you cannot get to the first row saying ‘I am a human rights activist,’ that would not be honest . The only women who come into the higher positions are those with connections to the high, influential political class.”

What are the consequences of these “alibi” women quotas in key political positions?

Saifora Paktiss: “Let us take the peace talks as an example. Women’s rights are used as a ‘label’ during the peace talks. There are no women’s rights mentioned there; there is not a single woman participating; there is no meaningful contribution by women to that process. There is only a ‘label’, which is used because international politics want to mainstream this issue. In reality, it is just a symbol. However, we do have women in Afghan institutions now, for instance in the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Defence or Ministry of Education. We do have female governors, female ministers and many other women as deputy ministers and ambassadors. But the truth is, most of the time they don’t really speak up, make a difference or contribute to change. We still have hope and we are working on trying to propose real and strong nominees to our government. We really have to face this as a challenge.”

Humaira, what challenges do you see in fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Humaira Rasuli: “I would say that there are high barriers when you challenge the extremist mindset and also some of those warlords who are in official positions. Their perception of women’s rights is very weak. And they only accept women’s rights on paper because they have to, due to the pressure of the international community. Even with our current government – I’m very suspicious of their political will.”

How does this poor understanding of women’s rights affect your work?

Humaira Rasuli: “We have to be very diplomatic while talking to political actors. And we have to advocate different topics to reach our goals. If you go into too much detail on women’s rights and the kind of equality that we are really looking for, they don’t understand you. They will interpret your points as the integration of the ‘western approach’ into our traditional society. But even if you can convince them, they still react by creating a lot of problems. For instance, they will set up a lot of administrative procedures you have to follow. There are thousands of examples that we could name. They simply want to give you some stress. They create more administrative work for you, and there is already a lot of bureaucracy. That’s why advocacy work is a bit difficult these days.”

Vida Faizi: “In addition to what Humaira said: Recently we held a training session where really old people took part. They were not ready for change at all. They were not even ready to hear what we were saying. We started talking about gender and women’s rights but in their mindsets those concepts are just rejected as the ‘western approach’. And they were just looking for verses from the Koran to find something against women and present it. Some of them said, ‘The root of the violence was a woman! The proof is in this verse.’ And when we check it the interpretation is not like that at all. And then we negotiate it again and again and discuss with those men. Sometimes we have really tough times. One day a doctor said: ‘Ha, she’s from the violence against women organisation!’ and I said ‘What? No I am against violence, you know that!’ It will need more time to push them, to make them recognise who we are and what we are doing.”

Does this situation with restrictions and ongoing defence also affect your body and mind?

Humaira Rasuli: “Yes, there is a general threat. You know, we, as women, we cannot walk in the country. It’s very true that the only step you walk in public is from your front door to the car and from the car door to the office entrance. That affects your mental health very much. Sometimes you have to express yourself in a way that you are supposed to. You suppress your real feelings and attitude, and that affects you. It is not visible in the short term but it has an effect on your body and your mental health situation. Furthermore, women’s or human rights defenders are confronted with discrimination: people are watching you, provoking you, labelling you. Fortunately, so far, none of us has been directly attacked, but it is only a few years ago that we faced a direct physical attack in a TV station. Anyway, personally I’m not afraid very much. Because what we do is aligned with the constitutional law and it’s in line with sharia law. It is also in accordance with the understanding of the principle of law.”