The Washington Times, November 16, 2002
Afghan war widows survive
By Emilia Aigotti
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — For the Afghan war widows who live in this border city as refugees, ignorance often proves more oppressive than the all-covering burka they were forced to wear back home. Top Stories
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) works discreetly in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to support and educate these widows and their children.
The organization — founded in 1977 by an female Afghan activist who left Kabul University during the tumultuous years following the overthrow of the king — runs orphanages, hostels, schools, clinics and refugee camps. Politically, it battles to change attitudes toward Afghan women.
The founder — born in 1956 and killed in 1987 — who used the single name Meena, enlarged her campaign in 1979 to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its puppet military rulers. In 1981, she began publishing a bilingual magazine, Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message), which also opposed fundamentalist Islamic groups.
According to RAWA's Web site, www.rawa.org, Meena established schools for refugee children, a hospital and handicraft centers for refugee women in Pakistan. She was invited to France and other European countries to describe her social work and opposition to the Soviet occupation as well as to the fundamentalist mujahideen fighting them.
She was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan, in February 1987, reportedly by agents of KHAD, the Afghan equivalent of the KGB.
Members of RAWA still cover their heads when leaving the house, and cannot leave the home without the escort of a close male relative.
The word "revolutionary" in the group's name has nothing to do with theatrical protests of women's liberation movements in the West.
Instead, RAWA believes in educating women and children to give them power over their lives.
In interviews, the first thing mentioned by female refugees who have turned to RAWA for help is their wish for education, for themselves and their children.
RAWA teaches women and children English, basic literacy in Persian, math, geography, how to care for their own health as well as their children's, and that there are ways of life beyond the burka.
At one shelter in this Pakistan border city, courses involve a teacher and as many as 30 or 40 women in the sitting room of a small house. The teacher uses a blackboard set against the wall and a stub of chalk.
RAWA also provides vaccinations against common diseases such as polio and medications, as well as oil and flour to refugee women. One woman with 11 children still manages to take a few hours out of her day to attend class.
RAWA operates clinics in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, as well as the largest free Afghan refugee hospital in Pakistan. The clinic at RAWA's Peshawar refugee camp vaccinates and provides medical care to more than 30,000 patients a year.
In Rawalpindi with the help of three doctors, including a pediatrician and gynecologist, physicians working with the group can perform simple surgery, administer ultrasound tests, give vaccinations, X-rays, blood tests and other basic care for diseases such as meningitis, tetanus, malaria and dysentery.
RAWA runs one refugee camp in the desert near Peshawar where families find a safe place to live, with electricity, food and a communal water pump that runs only once a day.
There, children attend schools, take English courses, and play on organized sports teams such as soccer, basketball and even karate.