Herat, a city in the western part of Afghanistan, near the Iranian border. Far away from the capital city of Kabul, women here are still experiencing oppression and abuse. Ismail Khan rules over the city. Women's rights are not an issue.
But this is where the German women's aid organization "medica mondiale" is stepping in. The group has already been active in Kabul since the end of the Afghanistan War, battling violence against women. Now the organization is expanding its work out into the provinces.
Forced marriages for young girls
Women's shelters are planned for Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif. To get the latest project off the ground, "medica mondiale" members Marjorie Stroud and Gurcharan Virdee spent almost three months in Afghanistan. In Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in the north, the situation is even more dramatic than in Herat. Several commanders are jostling for power there. Women's rights are simply not discussed.
Young girls only 9 or 10 years old are forced to marry men who are much older. "It's a very poor city. The parents get money for marrying off their daughters", explains Gurcharan Virdee. The women and girls have no power to resist this unjust situation. If they dare to accuse a man of raping them, they usually wind up in jail themselves, and not the rapist.
"Women full of energy"
Gurcharan Virdee is surprised at the strength of these women. "They are full of energy and the will to change things." But this is not without its dangers. "If a woman dares to speak up for women's rights, there are usually dire consequences. Some have already lost their jobs as a result", says Gurcharan Virdee.
Even worse, if they seek help at a women's shelter, for example, they run the risk of their family disowning them. Under Islamic law, they would then lose any children over seven years of age.
Great deal of interest in women's shelters
Nevertheless, the women showed an avid interest in the introduction of women's shelters. And they were also keen on the possibility of receiving training there. This is what the project, funded by the UNHCR, envisions for these women. Working together with aid organizations already active in Afghanistan, "medica mondiale" plans to set up several women's shelters.
The women's rights experts from Germany will supply the advice they need. "It's a question of raising consciousness", explains the founder of "medica mondiale", Monika Hauser. The women must first come to realize that they are being treating unjustly. That they have rights.
For more than ten years now, medica mondiale has been working with women in war-torn countries and crisis areas. Dealing with trauma is the first step on the way to normality. Only then can women turn their attention to their education and establishing occupational independence.
Raising awareness of women's rights
In Heart, 34 Afghan women have already taken part in a training seminar. This gave the women an opportunity to work through their own experiences. Each of them had either been the victim of violence, or had observed other women being abused, reports Marjorie Stroud. The three-week seminar taught these women organizational skills, logistics basics and, above all, what it takes to set up a women's shelter.
"Of central importance are expert knowledge on trauma and an awareness of what constitutes the violation of women's human rights", according to Marjorie Stroud. "One woman came to the seminar the next day and told us that she had begun to apply what she had learned to try to help other women", recounts Gurcharan Virdee. The ultimate goal is to at some point build up a network to counteract violence against women.
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2004
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida