I first went to Afghanistan, writes Rachel Agelou, as a British military officer in the early 2000s working alongside the Civil Military Cooperation Teams, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Foreign Office, DFID, USAID and many International Community Organisations based in Stabilisation.
I have returned repeatedly since as a visiting consultant in capacity building for the United Nations, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although I don’t have formal gender training, nor is my consultancy gender based, I have had plenty of every day experience working around UN women in both countries.
Throughout this summer I was out and about in Herat, Mazar, Kandahar, Faizabad, Jalalabad, and Kabul. Each trip I make more observations and am aware of even more challenges for Afghan women. The nearer 2014 comes the more palpable the tensions become, we know this. One of the clear things that will stay with me from my recent experience is that everywhere I went I was told in many different ways ‘the closer we women get to independence and recognition of equality, the harder it gets.’ No surprise there, but it is easy to dismiss how hard the simple basics really are in a society so unused to supporting the working woman.
I have taken the time to share and highlight some of the simple complexities and shapes and sizes of the problems centered around women that I met and worked alongside. The threats many women receive (not just by men!) are staggering. Among the horrific reports of gender based violence and infringement of Human Rights in Afghanistan for both men and women I do see small victories of everyday working women doing nine-to-five jobs. Yet despite these encouraging stories there are still key simple factors preventing the positive results of some working women, and their families, from promoting the successes.
I was asked, and willingly volunteered to mentor (pro bono) a formidable women. A Lecturer of Law, amongst many other achievements, she plays an amazing leading key role in society yet Najela is suffering terrible mental stress due to the pressures from her own family. She cannot see her own value and certainly seems to be appreciated by no one. She supports the rest of her father’s household domestically as her father’s second wife will not allow any one into the house and will not do any domestic work herself.
In having several skype discussions about her problems she asks for ”a stress pill’ yet she simply needs domestic and professional assistance. She has no hope of ever being married by her family now as they have grown rich on her salary and they will not let her stop work so she is tied to her home. She cannot compete with UN/NGOs in salary to be able to find a permanent assistant. She has had a string of young women who were not proactive, possibly because they did not receive much income from Najela, and they move on to NGOs/UN for bigger salaries.
Farukh, a programme officer tells me that she can work as she has a good modern husband, mostly because he is a well respected assistant to the well respected Governor in the area. They receive no threats as a general rule. However her problem is that she has no female relatives who will take her two sons under the age of five. Consequently they have to go to a nursery in town where she knows they are not fed, are handled badly (both boys come home with unexplained bruises, intentional or not she does not say) and there is no educational play provided. They lie in a room in a row are mostly ignored. If she takes food for them they still come home ravenously hungry.
Fruzan is a young mum of one child who works as a radio operator and who is scared stiff of everything, her teeth literally chatter as she talks about all the hidden problems around every corner. Her husband also works for the UN which makes them a very high income family. He is a logistics driver and away for long periods of time delivering aid. She cannot find a nursery that she trusts, not simply because of the poor treatment of children, but worse because the nursery officials will know that she works and is rich compared to other families. She feels that this increases her risk of being robbed. In fact her biggest fear is that her son will simply disappear for ransom. Her husband sees the value of her working but does not like the son being (in his words) ‘abandoned‘ every day where they both fear he may be snatched.
Sheeva is a young single woman who persuaded her family to let her work for the UN in Kandahar to achieve money to pay for her father’s health care. The family benefitted so much from the money that she was allowed to stay. In her sub office she initially had 3 other women working with her and things were fine. However Sheeva’s office lost the other 3 women. Consequently, very quickly she was labeled a prostitute as she was the only woman turning up for work with 50 men. She receives constant threats to life from her work colleagues but won’t report it, her family receive terrible comments from other families in the town. She tells me she will now never be married nor can she risk leaving work as she will have nothing at all. At work the men completely sideline her. In a room full of male colleagues she has to sit out of sight in the corner and when working in groups she is excluded from participating.
Great achievements, such as education and economic empowerment, for women’s development has increased in so many areas and opportunities for women have really changed since I first was in Afghanistan a decade ago. However there are still terrible hidden and silent set backs, both cultural and practical. Despite the Constitution of Afghanistan  and UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women  basic support mechanisms and practical solutions do not yet appear to be freely forthcoming even in Kabul.
In bringing a brighter future for the ordinary women in Afghanistan lets not forget that support starts right at the very grass roots in order that the precious gains that have been made so far are not lost. For example basic support to ordinary working women; such as safe accessible crèche facilities that or safe banking, are simply not available quickly enough to support the innovators and their families.
Even more important, however, is community education, especially in the areas a long reach from Kabul, explaining why it is vital women are part of the work force going forward throughout the next decade and beyond. Until there are more working women, and their families, publicising the benefits of women at work the encouragement that families need to reduce gender related conflict doesn’t exist. It is easy to understand why the poor and marginalized women are failing to achieve when even the more powerful and well supported women are struggling to ‘normalise’ their working lives. Without having basic support mechanisms from family, in my opinion, very little will change the customary male belief that they must be the sole breadwinners and that women’s place remains out of the work place.
To end on a happier note I was in Kabul when the glorious Afghan Football Team returned after winning it’s first international football trophy. Whilst visiting the British Embassy I hid in hardened cover in a hail of happy celebratory gun fire aimed skyward but ricocheting all around me. I witnessed hundreds of people taking to the streets and riding in the cars, cheering and waving flags. I saw men and women, briefly immersed in complete happiness. What I believe to be even more amazing is that not far behind them is the note-able success of the Afghan Women’s Football team who beat Kyrgyzstan in a friendly in August. Let’s wish