Monday, August 10, 2009

We learn to discriminate: Unlearning the Gender Learning

For the past decade, many development discourses have taken name from the happenings and incidents around the globe and every day we are witness of a new term describing a particular situation. Although there are reasons behind creating a discourse and then using it for self-promoting purposes, we never look into the root causes of those happenings and incidents in our surroundings. The terms as “violence against women”, “Women’s rights”, “child rights”, “gender inequality”, “discrimination against women and girls” and many more are quiet commonly used discourse to describe the terrible conditions of women and girls around the world particularly within the so-called third world countries.

Governments, civil society, profit and non-profit sectors, and activists are striving hard to introduce laws to prevent violence against women and children, to raise public awareness on affects of violence in the communities, doing a lot of advocacy, and lobbying for social justice social inclusion. However, we hardly look at the grass root causes of violence and discrimination against women and children in our communities, by our communities I mainly focus on patriarchal South Asian and Middle East countries. Have we ever thought that we learn to discriminate and violate rights of another human being particularly of women and girls? Have we ever thought that it is only us individuals who can strengthen social justice within our families and communities?

Violence against women and girls is not generated automatically from any community or individual, there is a systematic process of gender learning. By gender learning, I mean that we learn the expected and accepted characteristics for women and men in our communities from birth to death. We all learn how to behave and treat women and men in our society through the socialization process that takes place during the living cycle of human beings. In the process of socialization, girls and boys are given a very clear skeleton to fit themselves in those skeletons with particular characteristics in order to be socially accepted individuals. Let’s look at the family structures, we teach our daughters to play with the pink dress dolls, never go out otherwise boys will hurt you and people will laugh on us and we will lose our honor, and teach girls how to cook well so that her in laws will be happy with her. At the same time, we teach the brother of that girl in her presence that you are a man, our protector, our landlord and it is up to you how you protect the family honor, which is usually linked to women’s clothing, their education and their marriage.

I am usually amazed when my parents insist that whenever I go out I take my 12-year-old brother because I need a man to protect me in the society. It is obvious that from this age he starts to learn that he is superior to his sisters and even older sisters and he is the one that can save and protect his sisters, so he gets out of his way to protect his sisters at any cost ignoring her rights and identity.

We do not pay enough attention to the small issues during the childhood of our kids that will shape their mentality about themselves and their opposite sex for the rest of their lives. A small example is that when a boy cries, we condemn him saying” come on, you are not a girl, don’t cry like girls, it is a shame!” this is where we teach the lesson of girl’s inferiority to our sons and boys. We teach our boys that girls cry because they are weak and inferior while boys are superior and should not behave like girls. When our kids play around with each other we console them “Shame on you, you are playing with girls?” The honor and shame is usually associated with the lives of girls around us and from an early age our boys learn to be the gatekeepers of the honor and shame that is only related to girls.

We never teach our children the lesson of unity with their sisters and brothers, the lesson of respect that if your sister polishes your shoes, you should also iron her school dress to be courteous and kind to her. We need to teach our boys and sons that she is not there to serve you as a maid, she is your sister, your partner who should benefit equally and fairly from everything that you enjoy in life. We seldom remember that women and men need each other in every sphere of life and their lives are interdependent to each other, they both have different responsibilities, needs and contributions and we need to appreciate the diversity that shapes human life rather than despising the difference!

My Speech during my selection as International Woman of Courage Award

Wazhma Frogh
International Woman of Courage Award, State Department United States of America
March 9, 2009.

Today is yet another example that the women of Afghanistan want to change their lives and want to raise their voices against inequalities and injustices on them. Yet again we are challenging the stereotypes that the women of Afghanistan are portrayed as “dead and passive and those they can’t participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan”.

The ambition for equality and justice awoke in me when I was almost 12 years of age living in a traditional joint family that believed women shouldn’t be allowed to eat meat because it makes them strong and they will argue and disobey the family.

I started working for women and children 11 years ago when I was only 17 or 18 years of age. The compelling situation of women and children in the refugee camps of Peshawar, Pakistan made me question the inequality of power and access to the basic living needs for any human being. Trying to portray their real life conditions, I wrote in a nationwide newspaper that was published in four big cities of Pakistan on that time and raised the voices of the women and children that weren’t getting the relief aid they were supposed to, because men (who got the relief aid) used to sell them outside homes.

I continued working for refugee women and children in Peshawar Pakistan for almost 4 years through various opportunities and mainly by working with the aid agencies that were supporting women in refugee camps of Peshawar but also had its programs in Afghanistan. I used to travel back and forth to Kabul and other provinces to oversee those projects I run for women, which were mainly education, health and income generation.

During 2001, I came to Afghanistan permanently and continued my work through the first nationwide vulnerability assessment of women in today’s most volatile provinces. Since 2001, I have mainly focused on transferring my experience and expertise to local women organizations so that they are able to raise women’s voices in Afghanistan. I believe that for any strong nation, we need strong civil society. In the past 8 years I worked with more than 60 women organizations around the country, United Nations, national and international NGOs and the government to advocate for the women’s rights in all sectors of the governance and sociopolitical arenas. I have been devising advocacy and lobbying strategies for women activists and women organizations in the country to challenge the patriarchal system and assert their places within that system.

In the past few years, I have tried to bring out those local voices at the regional and international platforms, to influence the international policies on Afghanistan and address women’s issues strategically. Particularly, I have been advocating for women’s active participation in improving the peace and security of the country. As we women bring a perspective to peace which is more than military and police. Based on our experience, we believe security is about going to school, being able to get health services, being able to get justice in no time and many more. A small girl told me in Afghanistan that whenever her mother was badly beaten by her father, he knew that the outside security is bad and my father doesn’t have a work to do.

My current efforts include improving access to justice for the victims of domestic violence through legal aid and defense lawyering for women at risk. I also lead a 35 member advocacy initiative against child/women rapes and sexual abuse. We were able to convince the government and the first vice president created a high commission under his supervision to follow up child rapes cases and bring the perpetrators to justice. I together with other women activists are working on presenting the amendments to the criminal code of the country that does not yet recognize rape but instead punishes the victim for adultery. A child for adultery!

There is no doubt that in the past 8 years, after the formal fall of the Taliban government, the women of Afghanistan made progress which ranges from equality in the constitution, establishment of the ministry of women’s affairs, the 27 % gender quota in the national assembly and growing number of women working at various government and non government sector. However, we still have no woman ( apart from MOWA) in the minister’s cabinet, we are still not part of the peace processes, every 30 minutes one woman dies of maternal complications which 80 % of them are curable. Still today we do not have any defense mechanism for the growing domestic violence, which is 100 % increased and has taken a more lethal shape recently. We are still witnessing almost 7 child rapes on average in a month in one province of the country. This is happening while Afghanistan has already signed CEDAW with no reservations, obliged to report on its progress for the 6 human rights conventions and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and 1820 that makes the government responsible to prevent sexual abuse and rape of women and children.

The international community too hasn’t been able to address women’s needs effectively. They are too influenced by the fallacy that it’s impossible to work on women’s rights in Afghanistan. We have more than 40 countries present in Afghanistan who have their global commitment to women empowerment but that commitment isn’t seen in their aid interventions in Afghanistan. The hard question is that why the world’s global commitment and values aren’t translated into actions of an entirely aid dependant nation.

The worsening situations of women’s lives in Afghanistan aren’t anything separate from the nation’s instability. The more conflict exacerbates, the more violence is practiced on women. Mostly because of lack of law enforcement mechanisms throughout the country. There is a wide misconception about Afghans that they will not follow the law because they are tribal. But no matter in which tribe they are, they seek justice. The main issue is that there is no supply for justice.

I have been constantly advocating for women’s role in peace processes in Afghanistan that would eventually stabilize the country. The women’s participation in the first regional Pakistan Afghanistan Peace Jirga was exemplary of this fact. But still when international community and the state talks about negotiations and reconciliation with those that have massacred women’s existence, there are no women in those discussions.

It’s ironic that those who create the war are invited to make peace. In an armed conflict, they are still trying to arm the local militias. This act will be legitimizing the threats against women because women are the first victims of these localizing arms as we have seen in the past too.

I will conclude that the deteriorating situation of women isn’t a local threat to Afghanistan only likewise terrorism, but to the whole region and will eventually impact the world. Under the name of negotiations and truce, we all know the brutalities against women and children in the Pakistan’s northern regions. Because women are thought to the symbols of progress and power so they do all they can to diminish women’s struggles that stabilizes their nations too.

5 Million Women Campaign

During early May 09, when a number of women leaders gathered to design programs to encourage women for voting, i suggested what if we start a campaign of a bulk of women so that they can be motivated, encouraged and supported to take part in elections. Many thought its very ambitious as women dont come along in bulks. Later on , in a bigger coordination meeting on 17 June, i proposed the 5 Million Women Campaign as an outcome of coordinating election efforts by international community and civil society. A donor supported and we started the preparatory work at women's network.
The idea of 5 Million Women Campaign is to mobilize women towards an objective rather than an individual candidate that might easily influence voters. After so much of hard work to establish a working group, preparations and consultations, the launch was done on 4th of August 2009. The loya jirga tent that is a historical platform for change and struggles in Afghanistan was witness of around 1500 women from Kabul and 32 provinces ( Helmand and Zabul couldnt make it) and they approved a declaration which called for strategic integration of women into the next government plans and that will be only when they will vote for any candidate.

I spoke at this launch forum and encouraged women to ignore any other affiliations that will influence their decision but only vote for themselves, for any candidate that is able to respect women's vote and have clear plans for improving their situations. These women should also be the observers and monitors of the upcoming governments so that their demands are fullfiled properly. We are not asking for any sympathy or doing good for women, its doing good for Afghanistan. An Afghanistan that was torn into pieces, and where its women have had no role in its destruction but they want to play an important role in its reconstruction and teach the ones that destroyed it, that this land is half ours too.

Should i just give up?.....continued....

Very True...."things will get worse before they get better"....similar is a human being's nature. For the past many months i have been thinking of "giving up" because i thought my struggles are not paying off. But as i reach to the peak of frustration, i see the tiny hands of "change" that i guess i have contributed towards, waving towards me that they need to be strenghtened.I dont have to tell here that life in Afghanistan is complicated or tough....but its as complicated and tough as we can make it. My dad always says that those who dont make their own principles have to obey other's principles. So if i have started the struggles for bringing hope to people's lives, then i need to continue and have more supporters that should take this struggle to a farther level.
With all the frustrations on the surrounding, i still see rays of hope for Afghanistan no matter how small. For an example, i had initiated a project of 5 young lawyers that in three months assisted 50 women get freedom from jail for the crime that isnt even in the law. Like escape from a violent home. Escape from home isnt a crime, but women who escape, often end up in jail for years because they are accused of adultery as well, while attorneys mostly dont find the man who is supposedly the partner in crime, and the women is put in jail for years. There are instances where she is raped and becomes mother of many kids inside the jail but who cares about them. My project of young lawyers helped them to get freedom and i assisted many of them getting settled in some orphanage with their kids, although it isnt a pleasant outcome. There are similar efforts that at least brings me the hope that things can change in Afghanistan for the better as well if we work hard for this country......