Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My fight to protect the women in my country (Afganistan)

Inspiring story of Wazhma Frogh, who won the 2009 U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award. Note, however, that you have to go to the U.K. media to hear her speak. Why does the U.S. media black out coverage of these things?

My fight to protect the women in my country
Mar 10 2010
By Catherine Vonledebur

AFGHAN women’s rights defender Wazhma Frogh rubbed shoulders with Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama when she won the 2009 US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.

She has faced prejudice, intimidation and death threats to speak out against domestic violence, marital rape and child abuse in Afghanistan.

Yet the 30-year-old post graduate student at Warwick University says: ” If I am able to open doors for 10 other women in my country, then it is worth it.”

ANYONE who has read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini will know women in Afghanistan have been deprived the most basic human rights.

This story of two women, by the author of The Kite Runner, is set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s past 30 years – from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to the post-Taliban rebuilding.

In his story, Mariam, aged 15, is married off to Rasheed, a shoemaker 30 years her senior by her estranged father, following her mother’s suicide. After seven miscarriages Rasheed takes a second younger wife Laila, who is educated, ambitious and secretly pregnant with another man’s child...

And that is just fiction.

Wazhma Frogh has witnessed the harsh reality.

The 30-year-old human rights lawyer from Kabul said: “I’d say Khaled Hosseini’s story is not wholly representative of Afghan life, but the very brutal reality of child abuse is true.

“In The Kite Runner the tradition of making boys dance and using them as sex slaves is quite common, and like the characters in A Thousand Splendid Suns young girls are married off to old men.

“I have been to a wedding where a three-year-old girl was married. Her father gave her to an old man. They took her to her husband’s house and she was just playing, she didn’t understand.

“When I started work on child sexual abuse I had the problem that people would not even listen. They’d say: “You need to stop talking about these issues. We are a Muslim country”.

“Human rights activists set up a woman’s shelter and we used domestic abuse cases of these women to advocate and lobby for women and children’s rights.”

Cases include a woman whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband because she simply walked out of her home without him, and a woman murdered by her husband in front of the whole community because she left him, tired of the domestic abuse she had suffered.

The gender and development specialist continued: “One mother at the shelter brought her 12-year-old daughter who was raped by her uncle. Her husband had said to her ‘If you raise your voice about this I will kill you’, but the mother ignored him and took her daughter away.

“It’s amazing when you see a mother challenging her husband and pressing charges against the uncle. You just want to salute her.”

“It’s amazing when you see a mother challenging her husband and pressing charges against the uncle. You just want to salute her.”

Wazhma’s bold outspokenness for women, children and social justice has won international recognition and also seen the passing of Afghanistan’s new Elimination of Violence Against Women law.

In 2009 Wazhma was one of eight women chosen for the US State’s International Woman of Courage award, presented by Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

She said: ”This award recognises the women of Afghanistan are not all passive or victims, but women who are making a difference.

“Both of them are very nice. Michelle Obama is an ordinary woman with alot of passion and commitment for women worldwide. I met her again at the London Conference in January and she emphasised her continued support for the women of Afghanistan.”

Wazhma is studying for a masters in international development law and human rights at Warwick University, but she also writes a blog – – and has written for newspapers, including the Washington Post and The Guardian.

“Warwick University has a good image worldwide. I wanted to study this course because one day I would like to become a judge in Afghanistan’s Supreme court,” she said.

Growing up in Kabul, Wazhma was the oldest of five children, four girls and one boy.

She has vivid memories of the Soviet occupation, the bombing and the reign of the Taliban.

Under the 1996-2001 Taliban rule Afghan women were routinely beaten in public and even stoned to death for perceived breaches of Islamic law.

Wazhma and her sisters, like all other women, could not leave the house without a male relative or wearing a burka.

She said: “One of the scariest moments for me was going to the market with my dad. I was wearing a burka and could hardly see where I was going. I held on to what I thought was his coat but it turned out to be a Taliban leader.

“He turned and shouted at me asking what I was doing there alone. Terrified, I said I’d lost my dad: ‘Go and find your father!’ he shouted.”

When she was 10 Wazhma’s family fled. They ended up as refugees in Pakistan.

At the age of 12 Wazhma offered to tutor her landlady’s children in exchange for reduced rent, so she and her sisters would be able to continue school.

She said: “I started challenging values and because I was able to earn money that gave me status and they started listening to me. It was not easy at that time. But education is an empowering tool.”

Wazhma first became involved in human rights when she was 17. She used her internship at a leading Pakistani newspaper to expose poor living conditions and abuses of women’s rights in the Afghan refugee camps.

Wazhma has since organised public debates on domestic violence and marital rape in Afghanistan, both previously unmentionable topics in her country.

She persuaded mullahs to join her in a month-long campaign of speaking out against domestic violence, and, by mobilising a group of over 35 civil society organizations, convinced the government of Afghanistan to take action against child rape.

Even in her own family Wazhma has seen attitudes change towards women. Her father is now very supportive of her sister’s education. One sister is married and studying law, another is training to be a teacher while her 15-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister, are still in school.

Her parents are “happy and proud” of their daughter’s work, but understandably worried for her safety.

Last April an outspoken female Afghan human rights activist Sitara Achakzai was gunned down at point blank range by the Taliban.

Although she lives hundreds of miles away from Kabul in Coventry, Wazhma has received death threats.

She said: “Three months ago someone phoned my Dad in Kabul and said: ‘Your daughter thinks she’s safe in the UK, but this is not true’.

“It is hard. I see that they are trying to create fear in me so that I will stop – but I will not stop! If I am able to open doors for 10 other women in my country, then it is worth it.”

Wazhma believes International Women’s Day should be remembered as a struggle for justice across the world.

“In Afghanistan, International Women’s Day is known as Women’s Solidarity Day.

“We have a lot to celebrate. We have achieved a lot in the last nine years,” she said. “But education, health and jobs in the rural economy are still important issues – out of six million children only 40 per cent of girls are going to school.

“We recognise in different parts of in the world there are common situations. In the UK there is the pay difference between men and women, the glass ceiling.”

Cycle of abuse

WOMEN human rights defenders in Afghanistan have told Amnesty International they face intimidation and attacks as they attempt to tackle violence and discrimination in the country.

Women and girls in Afghanistan face widespread human rights abuses including abduction, rape and trafficking.

More than 87 per cent of Afghan women suffer from domestic abuse, according to the UN, and between 60 and 80 per cent of marriages are forced.

This is despite a pledge from the Afghan government to protect women’s rights and promote gender equality in Afghanistan.

AFGHAN wives are choose to burn themselves to death to escape a life of domestic torture and abuse.

Domestic violence and forced marriage are forcing women to commit self-immolation and suicide.

“I poured fuel over my body and set myself ablaze because I was regularly beaten up and insulted by my husband and in-laws,” Zarmina, 28, told a IRIN Afghanistan TV.

She along with a dozen other women with self-inflicted burns, were treated in Herat’s burns hospital.

More than 90 self-immolation cases have been registered at the hospital in the past 11 months; 55 women had died.

IN January 17-year-old Afghan girl Amina of the Chakhansoor District of Nimroz Province set herself on fire and died because of a forced engagement to a 55-year-old man.

Dur Mohammad, her father, had engaged his daughter to Faiz Mohammad and in exchange had engaged his 22-year old daughter to himself.

Dur Mohammad has a wife and five children and Faiz Mohammad has a wife and four children.

Amina had many suitors and some young men were even ready to pay as much as 750,000 Afghanis but Amina’s father wouldn’t agree.

Amina Hakimi, head of the Women’s Administration of Nimroz, condemned Amina’s engagement and said families shouldn’t force their daughters into engagement or marriage.

Ghulam Farooq Sherzad, an appeal court chief said that if it was proven that Amina committed suicide because of the forced engagement her father would be arrested and could be jailed for ten years.

OVER the past two years more than 1,900 cases of violence against women in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were recorded in a database run by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and UN Fund for Women.