| Ander Nieuws week 26 / nieuwe oorlog 2007 |
13 June 2007
By Terri Judd in Lashkar Gah
In a filthy corner of a clinic in Lashkar Gah, a heavily pregnant 12-year-old lies wailing at a curt, dismissive doctor. Down the road some of the thousands of widows in the area beg in the mud. In the local hospital, women lie recovering from the horrific burns of failed suicide attempts. The brave new world promised by Tony Blair, President George Bush and Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, appears not to have reached the women of Helmand.
When asked whether life was better now than under the Taliban, Fowzea Olomi, 40, the director of the women's centre, laughs: "The Taliban have gone?"
Life now, she says, is worse. Pointing to her burkha flung to one side, she added: "I never used to wear that before, just a scarf. But now we are all scared of the Taliban because of kidnappings and suicide bombers and shooters." Ms Olomi, who defied the extremist regime to keep teaching in secret, believes that fewer girls are now receiving an education. Most girls in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, go to school but in remote towns and villages, many parents are afraid to send children to classes.
Teachers, like doctors, are being kidnapped and beheaded with impunity. Only yesterday, a gunman sped past a school on a motorbike firing into a crowd of female pupils, killing two girls and wounding six.
Wounded girls risk being abandoned; in Afghanistan women are seen as a commodity to pay off debts or to settle disputes. Take the story of Malay, eight. An Afghan army vehicle ran over her arm and she was flown to the British field hospital at Camp Bastion where doctors explained to her uncle that she might have to have it amputated. He turned to leave. He no longer wanted his niece because without an arm she could never be married off.
Malay is still at the base, and her arm has been saved. "She is adorable. The staff love her and she has learned to say 'cheeky monkey'," said Lt Gill Pritchard, 25.
Across Afghanistan, the statistics make desperate reading for women. There are about two million widows with no rights or state support. Despite a new law passed recently that girls should not be married off until they are 16, it has made little difference. They are still forced into wedlock as young as nine, pregnant with the first of a dozen children within a few years, of which 20 per cent are likely to die before their fifth birthday.
But while the women of Afghanistan are most certainly victimised, they are not victims. In Lashkar Gah, which is also known as Bost, Ms Olomi and her friends battle on despite endless death threats, either by phone or by the now-infamous night letters.
Norzia Mahboobsami, the head of the women's council, receives threatening telephone calls daily. "I simply tell them they have a wrong number," she explained matter of factly. Last year, Ms Olomi's driver dropped her off at the women's centre and then set off on another errand. He was shot through the car window as policemen stood by. Ms Olomi, who still carries his picture in her purse, was not deterred and the centre reopened in the governor's compound.
It is an oasis in a desert of oppression. Beautiful, big-eyed young girls learn their ABCs, while their mothers are taught everything from English to computer training.
But the past five years have proved an endless journey of broken promises for Afghani women. Near the British camp, an ice-cream factory lies empty. Last year an NGO promised to fund a project to open it up and provide jobs for the widows, which would have been a vital lifeline for the 4,000 women around Lashkar Gah whose alternative was to beg on the streets.
The funding for the project never materialised and now the wafers bought to go with the ice cream are about to go out of date.
It is just one example, Ms Olomi explained, of hope created and dashed. And one of the reasons why aid workers - now too frightened themselves to enter the province - believe that the practice of self-immolation is increasing.
At Bost Hospital, where suicide bombers have been thwarted twice in the past year, Dr Abdul Aziz Sediqi said at least a fifth of the 150 patients admitted each month were women who had set themselves on fire. Countless others never make it to hospital.
Afghan women may have a ministry dedicated to their affairs, but so far as they are concerned it is making little difference outside Kabul. Women fall far below security and counter-narcotics when it comes to funding priorities. Yet with the few dollars that have reached them, small projects have sprung up. Among the British-funded schemes is a sewing school in the sprawling internally displaced camp at Mukhtar.
Squashed cheek by jowl in a couple of mud huts, widows work away at old-fashioned, hand-wound sewing machines, creating beautifully embroidered clothes to sell at market. For an investment of £4,400 over three months, the British/Danish-funded project has trained the women. And graduates keep their machines, allowing them a revenue stream and a way to feed their children.
"It is just a drop in the ocean," said Capt Rebecca Moran, a trained midwife and British officer who has spent the past nine months working with the women of Helmand. "But when you think that each of the 60 women has 10 to 15 mouths to feed, you see the difference it makes."
(c) 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
| Ander Nieuws week 26 / nieuwe oorlog 2007 |