View From Afghanistan on International Women’s Day

by Julien Anseau, Regional Communications Manager, ChildFund Asia

Afghanistan is one of the toughest places in the world to be a woman. On International Women’s Day, we talk with ChildFund’s country director, Palwasha Hassan, about the plight of women in her war-torn country and how ChildFund is helping.

ChildFund Afghanistan's national director

Palwasha Hassan, ChildFund Afghanistan

Palwasha, what is the status of women in Afghanistan today?
There are many challenges to face as a woman. Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth. Life expectancy is only 45 years. Only 18 percent of girls age 15 to 24 can read and write. One in three Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence. And many women are forced into marriage.

Although there are encouraging signs of improvement such as women’s participation in activities outside the home and the number of girls enrolled in school, there’s still a long way to go. Discrimination, lack of education, domestic violence and poverty are a fact of life for many Afghan women.

What are the challenges in women’s education and getting girls to go to school?

Afghan girls studying

Afghan girls embrace learning. Photo: Leslie Knott

Only 40 percent of girls attend primary school, and only 15 percent go on to attend secondary school. Traditionally, there is little awareness in Afghanistan on the importance of girls’ education. Many poor families cannot support their daughters’ education; girls are expected to stay home and help with housework rather than attend school. Schools are also often far away. Security is also an issue. It’s not safe for parents to send their children to school.

Education, however, helps women claim their rights, and it is also the single most powerful way to lift people out of poverty. ChildFund recently surveyed children in Afghanistan, and girls tell us they want to learn; they want more and better schools for all children.

Girls learning to sew

Skills training is one component of ChildFund's work in Afghanistan. Photo: Leslie Knott.

Over the years, with support from UNICEF and the U.S. Department of State, ChildFund has trained teachers, provided educational materials to schools, run literacy classes, opened community libraries to promote reading and supported social mobilization efforts encouraging children to go to school. Particular focus has been on girls.

What is the situation regarding women’s rights in Afghanistan?
Although legislation has been passed, in reality, the implementation of women’s rights remains patchy. Many women in Afghanistan face physical, sexual and psychological abuse, forced marriage, trafficking, domestic violence and the denial of basic services, including education and health care.

With support from UN Women and the U.S. Department of State, ChildFund has trained parents, community leaders and government staff to recognize gender-based violence and promote women’s rights, as well as strengthen referral mechanisms so that women can seek help.

Can you tell us how else ChildFund is helping women in Afghanistan?

mother and child

One key priority is improving maternal and child health. Photo: Leslie Knott

We educate mothers on the importance of their children’s education, health, hygiene and nutrition. We train parents, community leaders and government staff to recognize child-protection issues. We have provided livelihood training and support to women for income-generating enterprises, including carpet weaving and tailoring so that they can support their families. We also provide reintegration support to internally displaced and refugee families, including the construction of shelter and wells. All told, our programs provide thousands of women and their families with the support they need to take greater control of their lives.

Looking ahead, what are ChildFund’s priorities in Afghanistan?
ChildFund’s priorities and expertise in Afghanistan lie in early childhood development, raising literacy rates and improving child protection. In addition, we are focusing on youth vocational and leadership skills development, gender-based violence and reintegration support to internally displaced people and refugee families.

As an Afghan woman, is there anything else you want to tell ChildFund supporters about your country and the women there?
ChildFund has worked in Afghanistan since 2001, assisting more than half a million children and family members. We operate in more than 150 communities within Badakshan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Nangarhar and Takhar. Yet, the needs of the Afghan people are still great. For sustainable development to happen in Afghanistan, there needs to be a long-term global vision for the country. Then, conditions will improve for women – and everyone.

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