Afghanistan: new freedoms, new dangers
Irony of a war-stricken country: since the fall of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan are freer to come and go as they please. But now, more and more of them are falling victim to landmines. The ICRC’s Helge Kvam reports from Kabul on what’s being done to reverse the trend.
As she was about to enter the school gate, 10-year-old Rofhafza stepped on a mine that exploded immediately. She doesn't remember much about what happened.
" I thought it was a dream. Some days before I had dreamed that I stepped on a mine and I thought it was the same dream, " she recalls.
She was in a coma for nine days in hospital, undergoing treatment for injuries to her head, arms, and back. Her entire right leg had to be amputated.
The accident happened 18 years ago. Today, Rofhafza Naderi, with her artificial leg, works full-time as a physiotherapist at the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul.Incidents like this happen far more often to men than to women in Afghanistan. Afghan tradition dictates that men usually work outdoors while their womenfolk stay at home, taking care of domestic tasks. Under the Taliban government women’s freedom of movement became even more restricted and even fewer of them were to be seen outside their homes.
More than 70 Afghan Red Crescent / ICRC trainers work in Afghanistan. In 2002 the teams conducted 1,500 information sessions in 900 villages, as well as in hospitals, reaching more than 60,000 people.
However, nowadays women can move more freely. The downside, though, is that they have become more vulnerable to mine accidents, and female victims like Rofhafza Naderi are likely to be more common in the future.
To reduce this risk the Afghan Red Crescent Society, with support from the ICRC, last year introduced mine awareness teams specifically targeting women. It is not that the trainers teach the women anything different than what is taught to men. But they are all women – and the classes are not mixed.
" Many Afghan women would not come here if they were to be trained by men or were being trained alongside men. They simply wouldn't feel comfortable, " says one of the Red Crescent trainers, Lida Salamsay.
She adds that the value of the training that targets women is not only to reduce risks to the women's own security.
" It is mainly the women who take care of the children. And they pass their knowledge on to them, " she says, following an awareness session at a Red Crescent health clinic on the outskirts of Kabul. This district, south of the city centre, was at the heart of the battlefield for years during the conflict in the Afghan capital and is heavily contaminated with mines. Proving her point, many children join their mothers at the session.
Although men are still by far the most at risk from mines in Afghanistan, the percentage of female victims is increasing. In 1999, 6.8 per cent of the incidents recorded by the ICRC affected women and girls. Three years later this figure had increased to 8.3 per cent and the latest figures collected predict yet another increase for 2003.
Following footprints backwards
Over the past year the Afghan Red Crescent has formed 11 teams of female mine awareness officers. Their priority is to help communities in areas worst affected by the war to reduce the risk of death and injury. The teams help to map the dangerous areas, use posters to show what the different mines and other unexploded munitions look like and distribute leaflets and brochures so that the message can be relayed in the neighbourhood.
Aziza Akhundkhail, a mother of five, found the session very useful and says she learned something new.
" I don't think I would have thought of following my own footprint back if I suddenly found myself in a mine field! I have also been told where to report it in order to have the area marked and cleared, " she says, adding that she worries a lot about her children when they are out playing.
" I will tell them what I have learned and probably bring them along to the next session. "
Back at the ICRC orthopaedic centre – where more than a third of the patients treated are mine victims – Rofhafza Naderi considers herself lucky. She was fitted with an artificial leg from the very centre where she now works assisting other patients and is able to make a living. But she doesn't wish her own fate on anybody.
" I can do everything I want with this leg. It has changed my life " , she said. “It would be nice to think that my skills will be less in demand in years to come – but for that to happen, we have a lot of work to do preventing accidents.”