Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (Refugee women) - Two steps forward, one step back

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1995

Providing education and skills-training for Afghan women refugees was an uphill struggle. Slowly and surely attitudes softened, but how much survives the return to Afghanistan remains to be seen.

By Ayesha Khan

By the late 1980s, some 6 million Afghan refugees had fled as a result of the Soviet occupation of their homeland. Of these, 3 million, mostly from eastern Afghan provinces, went to Pakistan. Another 3 million, mainly from western provinces, fled to the Islamic Republic of Iran. By March 1995, around half had returned home, including large numbers of women.

Many refugee women returning to their devastated country after up to 16 years in Pakistan and Iran need both the means to become self-reliant usually in the form of income-generating skills and the opportunity to exercise those skills. But the great majority of Afghan women refugees came from, and are returning to, conservative rural areas, where opposition to the idea of women earning a living is perhaps as strongly entrenched as anywhere in the world.

"For years I thought that I only have to prove myself as a leader of Afghan women and as a good writer," says Safia Siddiqui, manager of a sewing project run by the Danish Committee for Assistance to Afghanistan, (DACAAR) in Peshawar, at the Pakistan end of the Khyber Pass, through which most Afghan refugees arrived after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. "I could not imagine that I would change my mind and devote my life to another cause that of making Afghan refugee women self-reliant."

When UNHCR and other agencies first began operating programmes for Afghan refugees, the idea of singling out refugee women for special training, which would continue to benefit them upon eventual repatriation, was still in its infancy. According to Else Berglund, a social services officer in UNHCR's Peshawar sub-office, much has changed since then. "In the beginning there were lots of funds which were spent without the idea of sustainability. Now, we have realized this and started many income-generating and self-reliance projects."

In Iran, which received about a quarter of the international assistance given to Pakistan, the situation was very different. Whereas the majority of the refugees in Pakistan were placed in refugee camps administered by the Government of Pakistan in cooperation with a multitude of local and international agencies, in Iran less than 10 percent of the Afghan refugees lived in camps.

According to Stephanie Aquino, a UNHCR field officer in the western Afghan city of Herat, close to the Iranian border, the refugees in Iran were therefore forced to be more self-reliant. In addition, women refugees living in urban areas were exposed to greater opportunities and faced less disapproval than they had back home in their villages in Afghanistan. They also belonged in the main to different ethnic groups from the refugees in Pakistan (who were predominantly rural Pashtuns traditionally the most conservative of all the various Afghan social groups).

As a result, many Afghan women in Iran enrolled in vocational courses. One of the most popular of these taught them how to make Iranian-style gillims (cotton carpets), a skill which some of them have subsequently turned into enterprises upon returning to Afghanistan.

But in Pakistan the early years created a culture of dependency among refugees. Afghan women were for the most part confined to camps, where their attention was mainly focused on caring for their families in an alien and claustrophobic environment. Nancy Dupree, a well-known scholar of Afghan affairs based in Peshawar, has written about the "acute psychological distress" suffered by women unaccustomed to the lack of private space anywhere in camps.

To add to their pressures, women have faced enormous cultural and political obstacles to becoming self-reliant. "It has been difficult to take men into confidence and to work with men," explains Berglund. "But attitudes do change with time." Working with illiterate female refugees was particularly difficult, remembers Safia Siddiqui, because at first they did not receive permission from their menfolk to participate in programmes. "The men would say 'you are spoiling our females.'"

The determination to build something meaningful from the ruins of their lives has characterized the struggle of many Afghan women. Rahila was a refugee in Pakistan for eight years. With her husband jobless and the family dependent on food assistance, she joined an International Rescue Committee (IRC) training programme for teachers. Soon she was teaching classes 1-5 at the crowded Nasir Bagh camp outside Peshawar. "I learned how to teach my students well," she recalls with pride, "and what materials should be used to help them learn easily."

Rahila, who has returned with her family to Jalalabad, is no longer allowed to work by her husband now that he is earning an income through his own trading business. He also argues that the "situation is not good" for her to work. Frustrated and saddened by this attitude, she confines her skills to tutoring her own three children at home.

Hava Majeed, chief female education officer at the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), sees literacy as a vital factor in long-term development efforts. "If you are illiterate and you need to go to the clinic, you will need people's help, but if you attend literacy courses, you can help yourself."

Similarly, other newly acquired skills such as knitting or tailoring enable some women to work for money and support whole families even when the support is not always openly appreciated by men.

A major achievement of UNHCR, the provincial government and NGOs in the refugee camps was the establishment of Basic Health Units (BHUs) which include outreach male and female health workers as well as trained birth attendants. According to one IRC fertility survey among married women in selected camps in 1987, patterns of marital age-specific fertility suggested that the average married woman was likely to have as many as 13.6 children. Back in Afghanistan, this alarming figure was matched with some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Jamila, who lived in a refugee camp outside Hangu, in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, recalls that a Health Education course she took at IRC was "the most important and useful experience in my life." She had lost her first job when the NGO that employed her was shut down because the camp mullahs, or religious leaders, declared its main purpose was to convert people to Christianity.

Once she had completed her health training, Jamila made home visits to vaccinate women and children, and to encourage mothers and traditional birth attendants to pay attention to safe practices during pregnancy and delivery.

"My family supported me, my friends and the camp authority admired me, and my husband would look after my daughters while I was on duty," she recalls with some nostalgia. Despite her subsequent work experience with other NGOs in income-generation and mine-awareness projects in Jalalabad, she believes that health education is the most important issue facing her people as they re-build their lives within Afghanistan. The skills she acquired during her health training, she says, are still useful in her daily life at home.

Jamila is not alone in continuing to act on medical training she received while a refugee. IRC's mobile teams inside Afghanistan recently reported that mothers were maintaining their children's immunization records first received in camp clinics in Pakistan.

In 1994, while 100,000 Afghan refugees repatriated from Pakistan taking the total since the fall of the Najibullah government in April 1992 to around 1.6 million returnees at least 84,000 new refugees fled the fighting in Kabul and entered Pakistan.

In Nasir Bagh camp, where new sets of mud houses are being built on land that had been levelled for cultivation after the first refugees departed, the Swedish NGO, Radda Barnen, runs a Training Unit. The Unit produces social "animators," who are trained to help people help themselves and encourage active participation in projects. RBTU teams say they have successfully overcome hostility among refugees who initially resented their refusal to impart direct relief assistance.

Dependency is less apparent among these new refugees, probably because urban Afghans including the women tend to possess skills that can be more readily utilized in camp life. For example, Huma was a kindergarten teacher in Kabul before landing up in Nasir Bagh. After her arrival, she collected children in the camp herself and started a voluntary school which has now been handed over to IRC. A training centre for midwives has also been set up by the widow of a colonel killed during the war.

After the closure of Pakistan's border to new refugees in January 1994, a wave of internally displaced people from Kabul descended on the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. Camps were hastily established by UNHCR, ICRC and assisting NGOs in the surrounding desolate area. By the end of the year, these camps already contained 300,000 displaced people, with perhaps another 200,000 living among the local population.

From the start, UNHCR and the other agencies operating in Jalalabad made use of the displaced Kabulis' existing skills. Training also began at an early stage, showing that the historical lesson has been well learned. For example, Save the Children Fund (UK) set up a training programme that pays newly trained midwives, or dais, to train subsequent batches of trainees in an on-going process run by Afghan women themselves.

Uzra is a midwife trainer currently working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF-Holland) in Sar Shahi, the biggest of the Jalalabad camps. She was originally trained in primary health care by the World Health Organization while still a refugee in Pakistan. In 1993 she returned to Kabul, but found herself unable to work because rockets, sniper-fire and aerial bombardment made it too dangerous to leave the house. When her home was destroyed, she and her family were displaced once again, this time ending up in Sar Shahi camp where MSF quickly offered her a job.

Uzra feels she is likely to face more obstacles to her continuing work outside of the camp. She says if she were to return to her native Laghman province, "people would gossip and it would be difficult to do a job."

Some observers caution that women's mobility in the public sphere always restricted in this segregated society has become more so since the end of communism and the rise of a dominant conservative rhetoric among the warring political groups.

However, despite the undoubted difficulties facing returnee women, like Rahila and Jamila, who would like to continue working but cannot, stories circulate of other returnee women who have set up carpet-weaving enterprises, private schools, and self-help organizations within their own communities.

Back in Peshawar, Safia Siddiqui feels that not only development programmes, but attitudes have come a long way. "The best lesson I have learned in development is to convert the impossible into the possible." She is optimistic that some valuable social lessons have been learned as well. "Those men who opposed us ten years ago in the camps are now very cooperative and ask us for work."

Whether those lessons and attitudes will survive the return to Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (1995)