The Hindustan Times, February 8, 2004
India can play a great role in helping Afghan women: RAWA
By: Saif Shahin
India can play a huge role in helping women in Afghanistan, whose lot has actually worsened in the two years since America's "war of liberation" ended the Taliban regime, a visiting women's rights activist has said.
"Women in India have a strong voice. They can speak about our plight on the world fora. They can financially support Afghan women's education, health care and the fight for their rights, for which organisations like mine are working undercover and with limited funds," Sahar Saba, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) told HindustanTimes.com.
"Women here are also earning an increasing role in politics," she says. "They can help pressurise the Afghanistan government, which claims to champion women's causes but does little on the ground, into providing at least basic rights and security to women."
RAWA has been fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan against a plethora of changing regimes for more than 26 years now. And, according to Saba, the fight has become still more difficult since the American war and the take over by the Hamid Karzai government.
"The change in regime has worsened the situation," she says. "There is no security whatsoever for women now. US-supported warlords abduct, rape and kill young women publicly and routinely across the country. Parading a swimsuit-clad Miss Afghanistan across the world is a sham. Most women have no rights, no education, not even access to essential health care. Many are still forced to wear burqas. Beating women and treating them like animals is a part of everyday life. The 5,000-plus American troops just turn a blind eye to everything."
Fundamentalists and warlords have been persecuting the 2,000-odd women activists of RAWA in Afghanistan and Pakistan - who try to provide education and health care to women and raise their awareness about their rights. "Our demonstrations are attacked. Many members have been targeted individually," says Saba. "Several of our male supporters have been arrested and mistreated."
"In fact, the fundamentalists have issued a common fatwa against us ¡ death by stoning," she says. "And this is not a joke ¡ they kill us when they can. Fundamentalists in Pakistan, hands in glove with mullahs across the border, killed our founding leader Meena. We are all forced to work underground. Many of us have to change houses, at times even the town or city we live in, due to threats."
Making a difference
In spite of the odds, RAWA has been running schools in Afghanistan and classes for children in the refugee camps of Pakistan. It has opened two hospitals in Pakistan, and operates "mobile health teams" in both countries. It is also running homes for the orphans of the war, and projects like carpet-weaving to help Afghan widows earn their living.
Saba's own example shows the difference its work has been making. As a teenager, Saba joined one of the refugee classes in Pakistan. "I learnt history, political science and a smattering of English there," she says. "But the biggest learning was about my own rights as a woman, and through watching RAWA members fight for us. I knew I had to join them when I grew up, and I did."
Saba is today a member of RAWA's foreign affairs committee, travelling around the world for the last three years articulating the struggle of her organisation. But help has not been forthcoming. "Western governments have often refused us flatly. After 9/11, when the Tablian suddenly became a hate-figure around the world, we found everyone looking out for us, dying to hear our issues. But when the war ended, they were gone again, and so was their concern and their promises."
"Sadly, India too has never really shown enough interest," she says. "The government here never pushed our case with Kabul. We have tried to come here several times to talk about our issues, but the government always refused us visas. Even Indian activists haven't shown much sympathy for our cause."
"But they can still help us," she says. "Women have become more prominent in India's political and social life in recent years, and we expect more from them. There are several women's organisations here and the consciousness of women's rights and freedoms is growing. These are just the kind of changes we want to see in Afghanistan."
"Even though the Pakistan government refused to recognise us or help us, activists like Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani have provided us a lot of support," she says. "We have learnt a lot from their own struggle in Pakistan. Indian women can help us similarly. We are trying to reach out to them. But they need to come forward and hold our hand."