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Afghanistan: women play a key role in improving lives

07-04-2005 Feature

Women are playing an important part in helping their fellow Afghans overcome decades of conflict, while trying to create new opportunities and improved services in the country. A series of portraits focuses on the women trying to put the country back on its feet.

Supporting Kabul's ambulance service

 Supporting Kabul's ambulance service  


One clear result of the protracted conflict in Afghanistan is the destruction of the infrastructure in towns and cities. Basic services that are taken for granted in many countries are either severely degraded or now non-existent in Afghanistan.

Even as the conflict continues in parts of the country, however, work is underway to restore essential services. The ICRC, the Afghan Red Crescent and other National Societies are making a valuable contribution to the restoration of essential services in Kabul. 

The Norwegian Red Cross Society (Norcross) ha s undertaken to re-create an ambulance service in the city, having recently concluded a USD 1.2 million reconstruction of the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, the only orthopaedic referral hospital in Afghanistan.

The Kabul Ambulance Service, the city's only functioning ambulance service, has been established as a free-of-charge service for the whole population.

A staff of 103, including a driver and nurse for each of the Service's 13 ambulances have been trained to operate from one base station and four sub-stations in Kabul. Staff are trained in two basic courses dealing with medical emergencies and special driver training, and they then receive annual refresher courses.

Karen Bjornestad, the NorCross program manager and emergency medical trainer for the ambulance service explains.

" Our key national staff are excellent, well trained and very motivated, and we hope that this will enable the standards of the Service to be maintained as the Service is taken over by the Ministry of Public Health. "

The ambulance service has cooperation agreements with both the traffic police and fire brigade for disaster preparedness and a memorandum of understanding exists with international organizations in Kabul for the use of medical facilities in the case of a major incident that causes mass casualties.

Six of the ambulance service staff are female and, of these, two are ambulance nurses working at the call centre. Karen would like to see more female nursing staff at work with the Ambulance Service.

" Because the ambulance service is on 24 hour duty for patients it is necessary to have crews ready to respond at any time. But it is not easy to get families to agree to female nurses working in our depots or in the ambulances with male drivers. This is a challenge to be overcome in the future. "

Educating Afghans about mine risk


 Educating Afghans about mine risk  


Landmines and explosive remnants of war affect an estimated 6.4 million Afghans living in 2,400 landmine-contaminated communities in the country. After 25 years of landmine use in Afghanistan estimates indicate that more than 100,000 people have been landmine victims.

The ICRC and the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) conduct a Mine Action Programme. Through mine risk education – teaching people in mine affected communities about the risks of mines – and by collecting data about landmines to support de-mining activities, the Mine Action Programme seeks to reduce the number of mine victims.

Malina, from Bamiyan, is 28 years old and she has been working with the Mine Action Programme for two years. She is one of 54 ARCS volunteers, including 15 women, conducting mine risk education.

She and her colleagues carried out more than 5,000 sessions to mine affected communities in 2004, reaching more than 200,000 people to collect data and educate Afghans about the risks of mines.

Malina and her female colleagues conduct all mine risk education activities for women and girls in 18 provinces. In 2005, they will expand their activities to cover 24 provinces.

Malina is obviously proud of the volunteer work that she conducts.

" Mine risk education activities are effective in reducing mine incidents because they raise the knowledge of people about the danger of mines and explosive remnants of war, " she says.

Malina conducts much of her work at clinics where women come to see the doctor for treatment. 

" As an Afghan woman, I am very happy to have a role in reducing the danger of mines and explosive remnants of war by educating people about these risks. In this way, I can do something useful for our war affected people. "

Afghanistan – restoring family links (part 1)


 Afghanistan – restoring family links (part 1)  

Wars not only inflict human and material losses, they also devastate the social and cultural fabric of societies. Few nations have been exposed to this as clearly, or for as long, as Afghanistan.

Although wars are fought mainly by men, women and children are often both the direct and indirect victims of conflict through mistreatment by parties to the conflict, through fragmentation of families and separation of family members; or by the loss of male providers during fighting.

The ICRC is mandated to assist the victims of armed conflict. It does this in many ways: providing assistance to victims; visiting persons detained as a result of the conflict; restoring family links during armed conflict, by tracing missing or displaced persons; and by providing a Red Cross message service to enable separated families to keep in touch.

Zohra, 20, knows about being a victim of conflict.

" I was shocked and traumatised when I regained consciousness and realised that I had lost my leg in a rocket attack in Kabul. Luckily, I was referred by my neighbour to the ICRC orthopaedic centre, " she explains.

" I was fitted with an artificial limb and got physiotherapy sessions to walk on my own legs. The ICRC offered me a job after I recovered and now I am standing on my own as an equal member of my society. "

Zohra now works i n the tracing department of the ICRC. Her function is to maintain a database of information of people detained because of the conflict. Sometimes she works with her Afghan Red Crescent Society colleagues to arrange the distribution of Red Cross messages.

" It is very important for people to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. We are maintaining relations between detainees and their families, or between family members who are separated as a result of fighting. "

Often, Red Cross messages are the only means for people deprived of their freedom or separated from their loved ones to get news of each other.

Zohra gives an example of restoring family links.

" It was very exciting for me when a person from Paktia province came to my department to trace his lost brother, who he thought would not be alive. After searching our database his brother was found alive – he was being detained in Afghanistan. When he heard this news tears came to his face. He said it was as if the ICRC had given him back his brother. "

" I am very proud to be working and helping my people, who are often in desperate need, " she concluded.

Afghanistan – restoring family links (part 2)


 Afghanistan – restoring family links (part 2)  

Throughout the years of conflict in Afghanistan thousands of family members have been displaced and many have lost touch with their relatives. In the worst cases, family members have been killed in the fighting and sometimes their final resting place is unknown to their loved ones.

In other cases, families have been separated and one or more family members are missing. Equally, people detained as a result of the conflict are not always able to advise their families of their fate.

The work of tracing the missing and, if possible, of restoring family links is one of ICRC's protection activities. International law related to armed conflict provides obligations on parties to a conflict to ensure that families are able to find out the fate of their relatives – and the ICRC works to ensure that these obligations are met.

Golareh Yazdanpanah has worked in the tracing department of the ICRC delegation in Kabul for nearly eight months. From Iran originally, where she still has many family members, she was educated in Neuchatel in Switzerland.

" I remembered seeing young Afghan refugees in Iran when I was younger and once I asked a boy at the bazaar why he was not at school? He told me he was Afghan – and since then I have wanted to help these people. I was very happy when the ICRC decided to send me to Afghanistan to work, " she explains.

Golareh's duties in Kabul have included working to maintain a database for detainees in Afghanistan, assisting with the distribution of some 8,000 Red Cross messages (mainly between detainees and their families in Afghanistan, but also between family members in other parts of the world), and occasionally acting as an interpreter and detention delegate for female detainees.

When asked about the highlights of her work, Golareh spoke of two things. 

" A boy originally from Afghanistan was in Iran. His family had left Afghanistan and were living as refugees in Finland and they were trying to find the location of their son. Eventually the boy was located in Iran and brought back to Afghanistan by the ICRC, where another organization arranged his reunion with his family in Finland. Seeing the ICRC's contribution to this reunion was a wonderful thing for me. "

Golareh has also been pleased to use her language skills.

" Because I speak Farsi it makes this work more interesting for me when I speak to detainees or families who have missing relatives. One detainee that I spoke with had not heard from his family in nearly one year and we were able to locate the family and arrange for a message to be delivered to his brother. These are pleasing times when you bring families back together. "

Afghanistan – gaining new skills


 Afghanistan – gaining new skills  

In cooperation with the ICRC, the Afghan Red Crescent Society set up its vocational training programme (VTP) in 1997 and it is now being implemented across most provinces. 

The programme provides destitute and vulnerable individuals with skills such as carpentry, tailoring, tinsmithing and embroidery to enable them to support their families. It also helps them to become self-sufficient and to make a full return to society.

" I lost my father and elder brother in the fighting in Kabul, " says 18-year-old Palwasha. " I am the only person left to provide food for my nine-member family. "

Palwasha comes from a very poor family and lives in the Qargha district, west of Kabul. She learned about the VTP programme from her neighbours and enrolled in a nine-month tailoring course. 

" I have been very lucky and have learnt a lot. I feel proud, " she says. " Now, I am able to work independently. My training will be completed soon. "

Palwasha expects to be busy once she sets up her own business. " I will make up to two or three dresses per week, and this will enable me to support my family, " she says.

" Palwasha is one of my best trainees, " said Suhaila, who teaches tailoring to a group of nine girls in her house in the west of Kabul. " This is the third batch of students I have taught over the last two years. All of them have their own shops now, " she adds.

Once her business is up and running, Palwasha is thinking of taking on students of her own.

Currently, around 500 trainees are following some 20 different courses in the framework of the VTP: tailoring, tinsmith, carpentry, weaving, embroidery, radio repair and so on.

The courses are led by 218 skilled ARCS artisans all over Kabul. Other courses are conducted outside the capital. The ARCS provides each trainee with a monthly stipend of 50 kilos of rice or wheat flour during their apprenticeship. Trainers get between 75 and 100 kilos of flour. 

After graduation, the beneficiaries receive certificates and the basic tools needed for carrying on their trade.