A voice of hope for Afghanistan’s women

In February, I went to Afghanistan. I met many of the country’s women, living in cities and remote villages. In spite of the despair haunting Afghanistan, they gave me hope for the women of Afghanistan. The women I talked to were engaged, energetic, eager to learn and inventive – and they had a strong desire to make a difference to others.

Åsne Havnelid, Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross, visits one of the Red Cross's seven orthopaedic centres in Afghanistan. Photo: Olav A. Saltbones.

Åsne Havnelid, Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross, recently visited Afghanistan. She met several women who have volunteered to work for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Red Crescent Society. Photo: Olav A. Saltbones.

I am convinced that the future of Afghanistan lies in creating resilient local communities, by Afghans, for Afghans. We must assist civilians in covering their basic needs and dealing with disasters. If we are to succeed, we have to take their situation and context into account. We also need to reach the women in the most isolated parts of the country. If we have access to the women, we have access to the entire population.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and our sister organization The Afghan Red Crescent Society have recruited volunteer women to be trained in first aid and preventive health care, taking their unique situation into account. For instance, there are big differences between regions, villages and even families when it comes to living standards as well as women’s position in society. In Mazar-i-sharif in the north, women were allowed to go out by themselves, in Kabul women actively took part in working life, but in Kandahar in the South, I did not spot any women in the streets.

What started with the Soviet invasion ended in years of ethnic and religious conflicts, tangled up with the detrimental consequences of natural disasters and failing harvests. The civilian population in Afghanistan suffers.  Thousands have lost their lives because of war, violence, landmines and the lack of health services. The maternal- and child mortality rates are among the highest in the world. 84 percent of the population is poor. In parts of the country, infrastructure barely exists, isolating villages from the outside world. Two out of three Afghans over 15 years cannot read. Many Afghans live in extreme duress and have acute humanitarian needs. The fear of what tomorrow will bring has an all-evasive impact on women’s everyday lives as they struggle to feed their families, to take care of their children, and to take care of the ill, the wounded and traumatized.

Creating  role models

On my recent visit to Afghanistan, I met many of the women who have volunteered to work locally for the ICRC and the Afghan Red Crescent Society. Some had come a long way to meet me. Others had to be accompanied by a male relative, as they did during training. Some were veiled. Still, what really struck me was how much these women were in tune with the time. And they were resourceful, despite the fact that not all of them could read or write. What they had in common was their immense involvement. They wanted to learn and contribute, and they took pride in their skills. They were passionate when they told me how much the training meant, not only to them, but also to their community and other women. The benefits of involving women in this kind of humanitarian work, is that they get access to women in rural areas, who are traditionally not allowed to be in contact with men. They share their knowledge on health issues. And, last but not least, they are positive, local role models.

Strengthening women’s position

Through our efforts to recruit female volunteers in Afghanistan, we have contributed to local health services and strengthened the position of women. The volunteers proudly told me that they have won respect in their local communities. They serve as role models to other women, young girls and boys.

The impressions from Afghanistan have given me hope for the future of Afghan women. If we give them what they need, based on their local context and situation – if we provide them with the right tools – they will involve and engage. This is a small, yet important, step in the right direction for Afghan women. When Afghan women are empowered, they can tackle any challenge.