Where we empower women: Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, people have been suffering for decades as the result of war, terror and poverty. Almost 80 per cent of adults have some form of physical, functional, sensory or other impairment. In the last 20 years, the international community had a strong influence on the country's politics, but there were grave errors. Above all, it was based around military intervention rather than a peace process. The fragile democratic structures in the country were undermined by the criminality and corruption of those in power with the support of the international community. And the Afghan people were then let down completely by the unconditional, rushed military withdrawal of the NATO states. In August 2021 the Taliban seized power again. Their rule of terror and the massive humanitarian crisis led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge elsewhere. medica mondiale is helping the staff from its partner organisation to find safe places to stay and to flee Afghanistan.
“For now, I wish for the women of my land to be empowered, patient and not disappointed, and I want them not to lose their spirit of struggle and righteousness. A little patience, dawn is near!”
After 2001, female activists fought for and achieved significant legislative progress, but even before 2021 the government decrees on women’s rights failed to become lived reality for most women. Patriarchal structures, religious fundamentalism, corruption and the all-prevailing insecurity prevented this. Under the Islamist regime of the Taliban, the lack of rights for women is once again official policy: women are excluded from public life. As a woman it was not at all easy to openly pursue an alternative life vision such as independence or homosexuality, but now it is impossible again. Women’s rights activists face huge threats.
Even before 2021, women often had problems asserting their rights in spite of the country’s constitution granting them equality with men. Now, the rights they did have are being dismantled by the Taliban. Their scope to move around is severely restricted. Women are not allowed to use public transport unless they are in the company of a male relative (mahram). In general, they are no longer allowed to leave their house alone, and they have to wear full veils. Figures in the new regime have made claims to the contrary regarding their attitude to women, since they need international recognition. Yet their actions speak for themselves: state authorities are actively preventing women from upholding their rights.
We know from experience: In times of crisis, levels of violence against women and girls increase. So in the absence of any current statistics from Afghanistan, we have to assume this is happening there. The women affected by this violence now have almost no contact points to turn to. Over the previous 20 years, women’s rights activists had built up a countrywide support system. But this almost completely collapsed within a few days. The relevant state structures no longer exist. Organisations and their staff who were involved in offering protection and counselling are now receiving threats. Many programs offering assistance had to be closed. There were 27 women’s safe houses but today only a few are still able to take in women threatened by violence.
In recent years, about one in three girls were forced into marriage before they reached 18. This high number has begun to increase again since 2021: the humanitarian crisis in the country is having a particularly severe impact on families with lots of children. In order to avoid starvation, ever more parents are turning to the patriarchal tradition of marrying off their very young daughters in return for a dowry.
There is another form of forced marriage currently faced by unmarried young women: households led by women or those subject to political persecution are being threatened by Taliban fighters who demand their unmarried daughters as brides.
”Many young girls are at risk of forced marriage as the famine raging in Afghanistan drives people to desperation – they sell their daughters in the hope of at least saving the rest of their family from starvation.“
By 2021, the proportion of 10-year-old girls going to school had increased to almost 60 per cent. By the age of 15, only 30 per cent were still attending secondary education. And 80 per cent of girls with some form of physical impairment had no access to education. It was, however, not the case that the state was officially putting barriers in the way of girls attending school. One of the first political acts of the Taliban was to forbid girls in many provinces from going to secondary schools. And female students at university could only attend if their institution could offer them gender-segregated classes. In addition, the climate of fear and gender-based violence further deters many women and girls from continuing their education.
“All girls should be allowed to go to schools and universities. All women should be allowed to return to their work without any delays and preconditions to continue their work in whichever capacity they were working before August 2021.”
Especially in urban areas, in recent years women had fought hard for their right to work in the profession of their choice. Since the Taliban regained power, however, most of the women who had gone out to work are now staying at home: some are allowed to go to work, but only in the company of a male relative (mahram), and others were simply fired. Most female journalists no longer go into work at the radio or TV stations for fear of repression. And females working to provide urgently needed humanitarian aid are facing severe restrictions. Only a few women in the education and healthcare sectors are able to continue their work. Many women with a good education or training have left the country.
The political turbulences in August 2021 marked the end of the freedom of expression in the country. The risk of repressive measures by the terror regime is especially high for activists. This insecurity and financial bottlenecks have led to some 65 per cent of the women’s rights organisations in the country shutting down – at least temporarily. In spite of these very real threats, courageous female activists have repeatedly organised protest actions against the misogynist politics of the Taliban. The new government is clamping down hard on these demonstrations and their organisers – there are reports of imprisonment, torture and murder.
The participation of women in politics and the government and judiciary had increased significantly since 2001. With the help of a quota regulation, they even formed 27 per cent of the members of parliament. Across the country, 21 per cent of all defence counsel were women, and 265 judges were female out of a total of 1951. The new government, however, does not include one single woman. Former female members of parliament and lawyers are now among those at greatest risk. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been abolished. In its place, the Taliban has once again set up the infamous Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. It ensures the implementation of the misogynist edicts from the new regime.
Although maternal mortality could be reduced continually after 1990, at 638 cases per 100,000 live births in 2020, it was still one of the highest in the world. The causes of these deaths include young age, vitamin deficiency and poor medical care during the pregnancy: and only 54 per cent of the births were attended by a midwife or doctor. The rate of infant mortality is also one of the highest in the world: four out of ten children die before their first birthday. Considering the humanitarian crisis and the restrictions on movement and work faced by women, these figures will surely increase again.
(Status of: 2022)
”We want to build a bridge between the local activists and those outside the country, continuing our efforts to uphold women’s and human rights in Afghanistan. A network of women for women – that is our aim for the future.“
”As Regional Manager for Afghanistan and Northern Iraq, my central aim now is to work with Afghan women's rights activists to find new ways of working in Afghanistan and to continue to support women and girls“.
In more than twenty years, our partner organisation provided psychosocial and legal advice to thousands of women affected by violence, Counsellors helped them gain strength and to go through life with dignity. Lawyers ensured that imprisoned women received a fair legal process and were released. Other women were able to gain compensation payments for suffering inflicted upon them.
Empathic support in difficult situations
Stress- and trauma-sensitive support strengthened the self-esteem of women. They and their concerns were taken seriously, and they realised that every woman has rights: this is true under Islamic law, under national law and under the Universal Human Rights. They learnt how to assert their needs within their families and to look after themselves. This experience will carry through into the times of crisis, too.
Tireless campaigning, media work and awareness-raising in a range of different groups in society, as well as in different professional sectors, all ensured that our partner organisation was able to influence and improve the public debate on women’s rights and violence against women in Afghanistan. The very fact that this debate took place, with impacts that can still be felt, is certainly one of the greatest achievements of the past 20 years.
Training on various aspects of women’s rights and violence against women was provided to numerous people in a range of sectors by medica mondiale and local female specialists over a period of years. The aim of these programs was not only to increase knowledge, but also to effect changes in awareness and behaviour. These impacts will not be entirely lost under the new regime since women working in the healthcare and education sectors will still be able to apply and further develop what they learnt.
In the past 20 years, strong networks have formed among Afghan activists. These are based on specialist expertise, common political convictions and personal relationships. The new ruling powers will not be able to wipe this out. Activists in exile and those in the country will build on their shared experiences, and new structures for cooperation will emerge.
Significant political experience
In recent years, women’s rights defenders have gained extensive experience on political processes in local and transnational committees and bodies. They were able to build up networks and conduct discussions with high-ranking politicians. They became familiar with the ways they can respect both their demands and their limits, representing these to others and asserting their rights.
Just a set-back: The struggle for women’s rights continues
Together with like-minded supporters, dedicated activists worked tirelessly to achieve the passing of laws and regulations intended to prevent and punish violence against women. They know that it is possible to negotiate successfully in spite of situations of extreme imbalances of power. We and they have suffered a nasty set-back, but our joint work will continue.
medica mondiale has been working for 20 years in Afghanistan. The program in the initial years led to the emergence of an independent Afghan women’s organisation. medica mondiale worked closely with them and provided advice and consultancy on specialist topics and issues of organisation. In spite of all the difficulties and resistance, the activists were able to assist women affected by violence and fight for societal change – and the German government supported this. Then their lives were put at risk when the Taliban seized power in 2021. medica mondiale demands: The German government needs to finally live up to its political responsibility and enable activists to flee to Germany. medica mondiale is doing everything it can to make it possible to continue to support women in Afghanistan in the future.
”We need international organizations to contribute to the Afghan women’s movement with funding as well as technical and moral support. I believe women’s organizations are the only spaces left for Afghan women and girls to come together.“
medica mondiale worked closely with its partner organisations to develop the Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach (STA). Based on their practical and local experiences, medica mondiale provided frequent STA training for the counsellors in Afghanistan during the past 20 years.
In Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Samangan and Baghlan, until Summer 2021 our partner organisation offered counselling for women who are suffering from the mental or physical consequences of sexualised and other forms of violence. In regular group and individual sessions, women were able to process their trauma and find a new will to live.
Decentralised advice, counselling in hospitals and emergency counselling
Our partner organisation had set up decentralised consultation rooms, making it easier for as many women as possible to find specialist assistance near their home. Additionally, in several hospitals, bedside counselling sessions were provided. Emergency counselling was then added to this provision: for example, for clients who needed psychosocial stabilisation before their legal advice.
Counselling by telephone for women affected by violence
In 2020, the counsellors also started to offer counselling by telephone for women from all over the country who were affected by violence and family conflict. Quick provision of this advice became urgently necessary during lockdowns imposed to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.
Starting in 2018, our partner organisation conducted women-centred family counselling in individual and group sessions. This helped participants to deal with specific family conflicts, gender roles, and the destructive effects of violence. The counselling always focussed on the specific needs of the women affected.
In order to help prevent violence, each year our partner organisation had set up about 12 new self-help groups: led by former clients, the groups enabled women to come together, speak about their problems, and find suitable solutions for family conflicts. At the same time, they experienced the solidarity of the group, broke out of their isolation, and strengthened their position within their family and neighbourhood.
The legal assistance project at our partner organisation offered women free stress- and trauma-sensitive legal advice. Often this was the first time that women even realised they have any rights.
Legal representation for women affected by violence
The female lawyers represented women in court if they were being prosecuted, or if they were taking perpetrators to court – who were mostly male. In these cases, the most successful strategy proved to be suing perpetrators for financial compensation – both to ensure the livelihood of the women affected and to prevent further acts of violence.
Compensation claims for sexualised violence
As they started to apply this legal mechanism in cases of sexualised and family violence, our partner organisation was pioneering a new approach in the years 2017 to 2021. They also began to train more lawyers to ensure that even more affected women were able to receive compensation payments.
Legal representation in civil law cases
Furthermore, they also provided legal advice to women in civil affairs such as divorce and custody cases.
Many women were put under pressure by authorities and families for a long time, until they withdrew their complaint. In these cases, social workers from our Afghan partner organisation mediated between women and their relatives to ensure that the needs and rights of the women were respected. In Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif there were special mediation rooms for this.
Reintegration and preventing violence within families
When women were released from prison, social workers talked to their relatives in order to make it possible for the women to re-integrate into their families and to prevent family violence.
With our support, female specialists working in hospitals received training. They are often the first to come into contact with women affected by violence. The aim: a trauma-sensitive treatment for women suffering from the consequences of violence. Women doctors, nursing staff and midwives increased their knowledge of trauma and retraumatisation, psychosomatic illnesses and trauma-sensitive methods of examination and treatment. Some of them will be able to continue applying these insights during their work in the healthcare system.
Self-care to ensure sustainability
In order to avoid burnouts themselves, female specialists were trained how to take care of themselves despite intense contact with severely stressed patients. This also included avoiding secondary traumatisation – where the helpers themselves develop trauma symptoms. Staff at the management level of the hospitals were also included in the trainings, so the training contents will continue to have an impact in the future.
Outreach for women’s rights
In order to enhance the impacts of the work to ensure legally decreed women’s rights became everyday reality, we trained and educated people with further influence in their communities. These included religious leaders and community elders, who are informed about the consequences of violence for entire families and village communities. This knowledge can also be drawn upon and further developed in the future.
Training public servants on violence against women
Police officers and staff in the judicial system also received training on the issue of women’s rights and protection against violence. Parallel to this, training courses on the Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach to dealing with women affected by violence were also held for prison warders.
Official recognition of women’s rights had been fought for and achieved in the previous 20 years. Now it has been abolished at a single blow with the seizing of power by the Taliban in 2021. In spite of this, the impacts of our joint political advocacy work will continue to be felt in the long term.
First law to prevent violence
The Elimination of Violence against Women Law (EVAW Law) passed in 2009 was a milestone in the struggle for women’s rights. Its opponents tried many times to abolish it. In co-operation with national and international women’s and human rights organisations, we made a crucial contribution to preventing this and preserving the law. This joint success cannot be denied, even if the law will now be ignored.
Reforming family law
Similarly, we strived for many years to reform family law in Afghanistan and gain significant improvements for women. Our exchanges with women’s rights defenders in other Islamic countries brought in new knowledge for a gender-equitable family law. This remains a goal for activists, even if the current conditions in the country make it a long-term goal.
Active against forced gynaecological examinations
Our partner organisation was also active in efforts to abolish so-called ‘virginity tests’. These gynaecological examinations were actually made illegal in 2017 if they were carried out in a forced way without the agreement of the woman and a court order. Nonetheless, they remained a regular part of routine investigations into suspicions of adultery, carried out on the instructions of police or judges (zinā), and they were used as evidence during sentencing.
Awareness-raising on the consequences of the ‘virginity tests’
These examinations can have extreme (re-)traumatising effects. Based on the results of studies, we consider them to be a form of torture. And regardless of whether they are forced or agreed to, technically it is absurd to consider them as forensic verification of sexual intercourse. These tests can, in many cases, lead to the woman being socially stigmatised and suffering further violence, even a so-called ‘honour killing’. The police staff we trained on this issue will retain these insights.
Our partner organisation worked intensively together with various Afghan initiatives, networks and organisations in order to strengthen women’s rights. These connections continue to have impacts after 2021 helping to maintain the active commitment towards women’s rights, whether locally or in exile.
International networking with women’s rights organisations
At an international level, and often mediated by medica mondiale, the activists at our partner organisation were able to network with other women’s rights organisations in south-eastern Europe, India, northern Iraq and African countries. Workshops and conferences enabled them to establish contacts with other activists, sharing expertise, political strategies and experiences useful in their work.
Solidarity across borders
A robust network of women’s organisations does more than just enable the exchange of expertise: The experience of solidarity beyond borders is especially important in times of disruption.
Germany: Assume responsibility for Afghan activists and their families
We are working to ensure that Germany lives up to its share of the responsibility for the grave consequences of the political changes in Afghanistan and their catastrophic impacts on the daily lives of women and girls in the country. We continue to critically monitor the German government as it implements the Action Plan on Afghanistan.
After the Taliban seized power, a large number of the vulnerable staff from our partner organisation and their close family members could be supported by medica mondiale in their efforts to evacuate from Afghanistan. This included medica mondiale providing funds for safe houses to shelter the staff from the provinces who had fled to Kabul, and joint efforts with other civil society actors to create safe routes of passage.
Protection within the country
Further, in 2021, a new partner organisation was provided with funding from medica mondiale to set up a new safe house in Kabul. This is used to shelter women’s rights defenders and their close families for periods ranging from a few days to several weeks or months. Some of them have subsequently been able to find a way to safely leave the country.
(Status of: 2022)
”The media and all people can give Afghan women a platform. Make our voices heard and share our painful messages until the world understands!“
”The international community can act as a pressure force on the Taliban and they should invite active Afghan women to every meeting about Afghanistan, and afghan women should be involved in every decision about their homeland and destiny. No foreign woman can represent Afghan women.“
“I believe that the international media can ensure that Afghanistan is highlighted in their news and to keep the country on the media. Isolation and ignoring by the media is very dangerous. It can allow the Taliban to continue with their atrocities and gender apartheid rule without fear of accountability. Media is one of the ways to hold Taliban to account and to show them that the world is watching you.”