Afghan Women: Strength Amid Adversity

By , Sima Wali visited Pakistan as a delegate of the International Rescue Committee's Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

I AM an Afghan refugee woman. Eleven years ago I fled persecution and house arrest to seek asylum in the United States. Recently, I visited the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. For the first time in over a decade, I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Khyber Pass. I was only a few miles from my country yet unable to return. In the midst of enormous tragedy - 3 million Afghans forced to live in exile - I found much hope for human dignity, resilience, and survival. The key to this hope is found with Afghan refugee women.

The trip to Pakistan was organized by the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee - the largest United States voluntary agency working with refugees in Pakistan. Our delegation traveled during an unusually difficult time. Efforts to help refugee women and girls were under attack by unknown men, hostile toward the development of programs for women.

Afghan women working in humanitarian aid programs were told to quit their jobs. One Afghan nurse was found murdered, and many other women were threatened with death and abduction. Personally, I was expecting to find much despair and desolation. On the contrary, both rural and urban Afghan women remain fiercely committed to their struggle for survival and to preserve their roles within their society.

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Despite volatile political circumstances, Afghan refugee women are the catalysts who will pave the path to peace and reconstruction. They are not deterred by threats and risks to their lives, and they are courageously continuing their work, unwilling to slip into passivity. They are keenly aware of the importance of their work whether it be teaching in a high school for girls, developing income-generating and skills-training programs, or teaching literacy to an adult population that remains over 95 percent illiterate.

Their commitment stems in part from a recognition that they ought not to become the forgotten majority of the refugee population. The scores of Afghan women we met unanimously agreed that traditional respect for their age-old status and roles must be maintained. They will not succumb to the harsh and unfamiliar restrictions imposed on them by a male-dominated Islamic fundamentalism - much more confining than what they had experienced in their homeland. They are responding to this fundamentalism by citing Islamic and Koran verses that praise women. They are using this religious basis to justify their participation in social and educational programs.

In the refugee camps minimal attention has been paid the Afghan women's unique needs. A disproportionately small amount of humanitarian aid is allocated to women's programs and services. Currently, some small model programs for women exist. They have great potential and are in need of expansion. The Afghan women I met were disenchanted with the international community's lack of commitment in supporting them. Without such support, ``we will return with empty hands,'' they said. These women need financial and technical assistance, as they will form the majority of Afghans returning to their homeland. ``We have lost an entire generation of our children to illiteracy,'' they lamented.

The international community must include Afghan women in both decisionmaking and implementation of its programs. These women know best how to deal with and counter the disruption caused by fundamentalists and extremists. Afghan women and girls have sacrificed much, yet they continue to attend schools and work at grave risk to their lives.

The international community, including the US, must be more vigilant in meeting their needs and insuring they have the opportunity to develop basic skills and literacy and are included in preparations for repatriation.

The current situation for Afghan women and girls is in flux. It may present the last opportunity for positive change. The Afghan women refugees, whose talents have been overlooked for a decade, deserve greater support. Seeing the strength and determination of these women, I returned to the US full of hope and inspiration.

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