Afghanistan: If you educate a woman, you teach the whole family
Many women in Afghanistan’s southern heartland are bound by centuries-old traditions that determine, what they wear and their freedom of movement outside the home. When they step outside, for example, women must be veiled, and they should be accompanied by a male guardian at all times.
The women help each other to follow the instructions in the flip-chart. © ICRC / J. Barry
It was all the more surprising, therefore, to enter a centre run by a Women’s Association in Lashkar Gah to find the air reverberating with the whirr of sewing machines and the lively chatter of around 40 women and girls, all learning to sew. In an adjacent room some 15 women were sitting around a table intently watching a presentation on livestock rearing.
Their trainer, 32-year-old Humayoon Samim, was speaking gently to the women, telling them how important it was for cows to have enough salt in their diet. As their teacher, he was permitted to be in the ladies’ presence, although they remained veiled.
During the morning break, two of the participants, Sharifa and Nazanin, came over to share their thoughts about the course with their visitor.
“We learnt that the place where we keep our animals must be clean,” remarked Nazanin, whose family owns two sheep and six chickens, “and I found it interesting that cows need salt. I had no idea.”
“It’s the women’s job to look after the animals at home,” Sharifa explained, “while our fathers and husbands and brothers go out to the fields. The most interesting thing for me was that the stable needs to be light and should have a window.”
Eager to learn
It was not only her lively interest in the well being of her animals that made Sharifa stand out from the other women. Only 18, and studying in college, she was also eager to learn about the ICRC, which had organized the livestock training and runs similar courses for male farmers. “How do you demonstrate your neutrality?” she asked at one point, homing straight in on the ICRC’s core mandate and forgetting for a moment about the animals.
For all their eagerness to learn, the women faced a brick wall with regard to one aspect of the training. Normally, one of the course’s ten days would be devoted to practical work at a nearby farm. For the women, though, since this was a public place, it was taboo. So they compromised by watching videos of farm work in the gloom of the curtained training room. They also did group work using flip-charts, Sharifa and the other literate women helping the ones who could not read to understand the text and simple illustrations.
Meeting Sharifa, Nazanin and the other women farmers was not the only pleasure of the few days spent in Lashkar Gah. The next morning some 30 female volunteers from the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) came to visit the ICRC’s orthopaedic centre and joined in a discussion on the challenges faced by women during conflict, and the humanitarian work of the ICRC.
Some of the younger volunteers were very shy. Several of them had brought their children and sat cradling them on the bulky floor cushions. One or two of the older women were forthright about the daily struggles facing them all. Some of them had been trained by the ARCS in community-based first aid.
“Our husbands are jobless,” they said. “We want to learn skills that will help us support our children better. Can you let us do the livestock training?”
Encouraging women’s education
It has often been said that education lies at the heart of all advancement and it was evident that these women thought this way.
Back in the centre, Jamila Niazi from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was of the same mind. A former high school head mistress, Mrs Niazi has been instrumental in helping to open up opportunities for women in Helmand.
“We have done a lot to encourage religious and community leaders, and the media too, to advocate for women’s education,” she explained, “to ask men to allow their wives and daughters to do vocational training. As a result, there are now 1,000 women who come to this centre to learn tailoring or computer skills. And we are glad that the ICRC is training women farmers,” she concluded. “If you educate a woman, you teach the whole family.”