Women for Afghan Women co-founder: Afghans’ stories need to be told

An internally displaced Afghan woman from a northern province, who fled her home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, fans her sleeping child, in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, 9 August 2021. (KEYSTONE/AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Days after taking control of the country in a lightning offensive, what the Taliban rule means for the country’s future and its people, especially women, remains uncertain.

The co-founder of a leading women’s organisation in Afghanistan urges international humanitarian organisations to continue telling the stories of individual Afghans, especially where others are unable to have their voice heard.

The stories of Afghans, women in particular, are crucial for reflecting and raising awareness about the realities on the ground, Sunita Viswanath, co-founder and board member of the NGO Women for Afghan Women (WAW), told Geneva Solutions.

Organisations need to continue their efforts in “raising the awareness and telling human stories where possible,” she said.

Viswanath has worked with women’s and humanitarian aid organisations for over 25 years and was awarded the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Global Women’s Rights Award in 2011 for her work with WAW, the most extensive organisation dedicated to the rights and needs of women in Afghanistan.

Usually, WAW is among the first to share the stories of Afghans, but they are unable to do so at this time due to the present conflict and insecurity. The non-partisan, grassroots organisation has been working in Afghanistan for 16 years.

First founded to support the Afghan community in Queens, New York in 2001, WAW launched its work in Afghanistan in 2005. They receive funding from UN Women and work closely with UNHCR on a project for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Confronting violence in people's lives, especially violence against women is central to WAW’s work, Viswanath said. Its work ranges from support for internally displaced persons to women’s education to family mediation.

The organisation has a presence in 14 Afghan provinces and 1,200 staff, the majority of whom are Afghans. Its approach is rooted in Afghan culture and Islam, and many of its staff and partners are imams and scholars of Sharia law.

Getting people out. WAW hopes to be able to continue providing their services, but need to focus on getting their 500 high-risk staff and clients to safety.

In the capital, Kabul, thirty armed men have taken over one of their buildings, and it is unclear who they are. Looting is rife in the city, and several of WAW’s cars in Kabul have also been stolen. WAW is coordinating with the US government and UK navy, among others, to arrange planes for evacuation. Getting people out is the first step. “We are all in automatic mode right now,” said Viswanath.

The second step is to assess the situation and see where and to what extent their work can continue, with the situation in the country changing day by day.

The third is to prepare their US branch in New York to receive refugees. “We are very well positioned to help,” she explained. There, they plan to provide basic life needs, care for trauma, education services, and immigration help. In Queens, WAW is also looking to hire a full-time staff attorney to assist part-time staff with immigration services.

WAW needs further funding for emergency services, including caring for staff and clients still on the ground. Until commercial flights can resume again, and if a window of opportunity opens, it may be necessary to airlift people with private planes.

Operations. Prior to the present upheaval, WAW was expanding. One area that the organisation has been focusing efforts on is growing its programme for internally displaced persons that it runs jointly with UNHCR. There are now more internally displaced persons in Afghanistan than ever – an estimated four million, of whom 550,000 have been displaced this year, according to UNHCR.

The joint WAW-UNHCR programme helps to integrate or reintegrate internally displaced persons and refugee returnees into communities. This includes working to keep camps and temporary shelters safe, especially for women and girls.

The organisation also has an education programme to help get young boys and girls ready for school, contributing to growth in women’s education over the past 20 years.

Literacy for females 15 years or older increased from 13 per cent in 2000 to 30 per cent in 2018, according to the Brookings Afghanistan Index. In the 2018 to 2019 academic year, 49,000 Afghan women were enrolled in university.

Another area where WAW has made strides in recent years is in dispute resolution, which has been in high demand since they started working in the country. Their approach is one of “restorative justice” – a process that fosters communication between those in a dispute with the aim of achieving a resolution acceptable to all parties.

Restorative justice is integral to Afghan culture and can take the form of a series of “jirgas” – meetings mediated by persons that all parties respect, such as an imam or a grandfather.

WAW helps to organise these meetings, at which often all sides in a domestic dispute are welcome. “If it is a woman who is experiencing domestic violence, she might bring her husband, she might bring her in-laws, she might bring her own parents. She might bring her imam,” Viswanath explained. The process frequently ends in reconciliation.

Although the current situation is uncertain and unpredictable, she hopes that the new Afghanistan is one in which they can continue their work, she said.

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Afghan women attend an event to mark International Women's Day in Kabul, Afghanistan, 7 March 2021. (Keystone/AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

An uncertain future. At the Taliban’s first press conference on Tuesday after seizing power, the group said women and girls would have the rights to education and employment “within the bounds of Islamic law”. What that means depends on what the Taliban’s interpretation will be.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed concern that women’s rights could be repressed under a new government, unravelling two decades of hard-won progress.

When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, the group exercised punishments in line with its strict interpretation of Sharia law – Islam’s legal system. Women and girls were denied access to education, healthcare was limited, and they were banned from working outside of the home.

Many in the international community are wary that the Taliban’s most recent promises will not match the reality.

There have been a growing number of reports of human rights violations against women and girls, but it is difficult to verify reports under the current circumstances, Rhéal LeBlanc, a spokesperson for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) told journalists on Tuesday.

Displaced women and girls are especially vulnerable. Close to a quarter-million Afghans have been newly displaced since late May, 80 per cent of whom are women and children, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said.

On Wednesday, several countries committed to “monitor closely how any future government ensures rights and freedoms that have become an integral part of the life of women and girls in Afghanistan during the last twenty years”.

The signatories include Albania, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, the European Union, Honduras, Guatemala, North Macedonia, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Senegal, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

“We are deeply worried about Afghan women and girls, their rights to education, work and freedom of movement. We call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee their protection,” the statement read.