Women for Women International provides education and aid for women in war-torn areas. Currently, they operate in eight countries — Sudan, Nigeria, Congo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan — teaching women how to read and become more self-sufficient.
This Wednesday at noon, WFWI is holding a fundraiser event that includes a luncheon and a panel that features Zainib Salbi, the founder and CEO of WFWI, journalist and director Sebastian Junger and Sayed Ishaq Gallani, member of the Wolesi Jirga and National Assembly of Afghanistan. The topic of the panel is the future of Afghanistan.
BUST spoke with Karen Sherman, the Executive Director of Global Programs, about what life is like for Afghan women, what she hopes to see for the future of the region.
What impact are you looking for specifically in Afghanistan?
We have a core program that’s a 12-month program offering and it looks pretty much the same whether you’re in Afghanistan or Congo or Rwanda or one of the eight countries that we’re working.
The program consists of rights awareness and leadership training, vocational skill training tied to local market opportunities, business training, numeracy training if women need it. It’s all tied to four key outcomes: women are well, women have rebuilt social networks and safety nets, women are decision-makers and women sustain an income.
We feel like in some ways the sustaining an income combined with the knowledge of rights, it’s those two pieces together which really create lasting change in women’s lives. So when we talk about the impact that we’re looking for, it’s really against those outcomes.
What parts do you have to vary based on region?
Mostly the vocational skills, because the market opportunities that might exist in a place like Congo or Sudan are quite different than those that exist in Aghanistan., although there’s some similarity just because we’re working with the most excluded populations of women in each of those countries. Because of that there’s high degrees of illiteracy and innumeracy in these populations.
In Afghanistan’s case, 84% of the women that we’re working with in our program are illiterate and innumerate. No formal education. And so looking at vocational skills, opportunities that women can do given those realities is what looks different from country to country.
Speaking specifically about Afghanistan, how have things changed in the past 10 or so years with 9/11, US involvement and the Taliban?
We opened our office there in 2002 and I actually was travelling to Afghanistan frequently then. Women were freely walking around, particularly in a place like Kabul, which is less restricted than some of the rural areas, or even some of the southern areas, you had a lot more women going to work and the market.
What I’ve seen gradually over the last few years…was just the incredible insecurity for women to move freely around the streets and the level of systemic violence against women, which has increased dramatically over the last few years. It’s been a steady deterioration over the last few years in Afghanistan, which has made it difficult for women to leave their homes, makes it difficult for women to find employment, makes it difficult for young girls to be able to go to school, all of those indicators of a society that is progressive and developing. All of those indicators have deteriorated over the last few years.
Does that make it more difficult for them to come to your programs?
Sometimes. We’ve had instances in some of the rural areas like Parwan where we have a satellite office – it’s about an hour outside of Kabul – where we’ve had to close the office down for a couple of days or even a week, and sometimes two weeks, when the level of violence or insecurity is becoming too great.
We’ve had a couple of bombing instances and so because we work in a lot of insecure environments we watch the security situation very, very closely and so if we feel that it’s not safe for women to come to our program or for our staff to be able to deliver the program in those environments we tend to slow down just a little bit until it improves.
Was the bombing directed at you guys, or just nearby?
This bombing was directed at a nearby thing but it had implication for our program. Although there have been WFW staff who have been targeted for violence particularly because we work with women there – including specific death threats from the Taliban to our office.
Yeah. It’s very challenging.
Have you generally faced welcoming or problems from men related to the women who come to your programs?
Before we move into a community to give our program, we do a lot of community sensitization because we think it’s hugely important that the women go through the training in an environment that is supportive. We specifically select communities where we know that they’re going to welcome our presence there.
That said, there’s always challenges to women participating in the program and we have also run, particularly in Afghanistan but in a couple of our other countries, what we call Men’s Leadership Program. We’ve singled out male leaders, not family members specifically, but male leaders in given communities. In Afghanistan’s case we’ve trained 400 mullahs, or religious leaders there, and really talked to them about what it means to support women, how not just their behavior but about society’s behavior toward women has an impact on the community at large, how they can best support women’s rights in their communities. And these mullahs in turn have taken those messages out to other men in the community.
We have found that that has been particularly effective rather than WFW delivering that message directly. We have had pretty good success working with male leaders in different environments.
Do you think recent events, with bin Laden’s death, is that going to change women’s lives or what you do or what you’re able to do, anything like that?
I hope it doesn’t. I think it’s not really going to have an impact on our program. The security system, we hope, is going to improve or start to improve a little bit more, which is only going to make it more effective to deliver our program services to the women. It’s also going to hopefully create an opportunity for women go more fully out into the workplace, which is a challenge at this particular time. So I’m hoping that it enhances the security environment rather than detracts from that, but I think we’re all waiting to see what the impact really is in that regard.
What do you see for the future in that region?
I think as these discussions are going forward between the Afghan government and the Taliban in terms of what the future political structure looks like and what the future of Afghanistan looks like, what we need to do collectively is make sure that women have a seat at the negotiating table. There have been instances throughout Afghanistan’s history and in many other countries where women’s rights are getting negotiated away when they don’t have a presence there. We already see some of that starting to happen in these ongoing discussions between the government and the Taliban.
Making sure that women are at the table, that their voices are being heard, that their rights are being protects and that they have a stake in their country’s future.
You’ve been over there recently?
I was just there in December.
What did you see while you were there?
People are a little bit nervous, but you know, what is always striking to me is that life goes on. Commerce continues, people still need to buy food, still need to send their kids to school, people do the things that one does in any kind of normal living situation and they absorb the insecurity, if you will. I saw the same thing in Iraq.
If one were to read the papers, you would think everybody is huddled in their homes and they can’t leave, but to go there, to go to Kabul, it’s a teeming city. People are out, they’re doing their business, they’re doing what they need to do. I hope that the security situation continues to improve and that women continue to have equal and even more rights than they’ve had in the past.
Image via Afghan Women’s Writing Project.