Friday, May 3, 2013

My Afghanistan Story ( The Hill)

After 20 hours flying from Kabul airport, I finally arrived in New York to attend the Afghanistan Panels at the Commission on the Status of Women at the U.N., inaugurate a photo exhibition of Afghan women at the Congress, and launch the Resolution to Act which is ensuring that Afghan women are at the table during talks with the Taliban. While coming to the United States, during the flight from Dubai to JFK, I was preparing my talking points and presentation on the situation of Afghan women, and kept comparing our lives with the situation 12 years ago, and only one statement kept echoing in my head that we’ve come a long way.

For me the progress that is made in Afghanistan is beyond President Karzai or any other individual in the government. This progress is about our own lives. Our struggles to change our own lives from complete isolation to getting on to the world stage, and that in 11 years, has been realized to some degree. This progress is about the female MPs that lobby politics inside the patriarchal parliament of Afghanistan. Its about thousands and millions of young little girls with their head to toe black uniform and the white scarf that distinguish them from the crowd on the streets. This progress is about thousands of female doctors who are now treating their patients with electronic medical aid and can prevent pregnant mothers from dying. This progress is about thousands of female nurses who were not even allowed to enter hospitals 12 years ago and this progress is also about thousands of young Afghan men and women who are journalists, day and night reporting on national and international interests to Afghans through over 50 television channels, hundreds of radio stations and hundreds of newspapers.

Every morning I go to my office in Kabul and work to bring women to the forefront of the country’s reconciliation process. I help women at risk to get immediate support and protection. But its not only my own colleagues that give me the hope to continue. Its all those young men and women that I see in my neighborhood holding their laptop bags, many other young Afghans holding books and running to catch their school buses. I see female teachers holding the hands of the little children and cheering the traffic police who stop the cars so that they all can cross the road and get to their schools. I see the minibus dropping the female air-hostesses that host thousands of travelers to and from Kabul airport coming back to their homes. I see the female journalist who comes to our neighborhood to cover the weekend artwork exhibition by the women handicraft workers.

This is the story that I wanted to share with Americans in Congress, the Obama administration, American NGOs and the American people who have been the biggest donor and supporters of Afghans in the past 11 years. But as I landed in JFK, there was what appeared to be some shocking news. The television channels at the arrival lounge were flashing news that showed the photo of the Afghan president with a headline that read "Taliban and American are working together." This was just as I had already arrived at the immigration counter. Hesitantly, I gave my passport and the immigration officer looked at my passport with the words "The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan." He then looked at me and we both once again looked at the television that was still flashing the same headline. He nodded his head and didn’t say a word.

This isn't the story that I wanted to share with the world or why I travelled all these thousands of miles surely. The first thing I did was to check my phone for Internet and was again shocked at the sensation that the president’s March 8 speech had caused. I couldn’t do anything but watch and listen to what he really said. Standing in the cue for the taxi at 7am in the morning while it was raining in New York, I listened to the president’s speech. There was literally no statement as such that “Taliban and the Americans are working together” instead I found his focus more on the Taliban and creating a national resistance against the Taliban.

I am not the President Karzai's spokesperson nor do I entirely agree with his political stances. However, I am an Afghan who has lived through war and has also lived through the past 12 years of Afghanistan's journey and I am struggling hard to not allow the cynicism around the war to overshadow the progress we Afghans have made at the cost of much blood and treasure, but not ours alone, but that of thousans of American soldiers as well. This is a struggle that we both share. If we succeed, it’s a common success, and if we fail, it will be a joint failure.

I don’t know much about the politics in the U.S. Right now, I am more concerned about my own countr. But what I ask for in particular from the American and western media is not just to look at Afghanistan as a country where the U.S. is at war, but rather as a country that has people and a history. People are living lives just the way everyone else does here in America, whether it's running to catch the subway in Manhattan or catch a bus. So too Afghans are running to catch buses to get to their work and return back home to spend time with their families and children. Sensationalizing a statement from the Afghan president will sell news here in the U.S. But it can easily ruin the relations that Afghans have created with the United States and with the American people over the past 12 years of common interest, especially when those statements are not even properly translated.

Frogh, co-founder & executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace & Security in Afghanistan.

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The Problem With One Donor's Attempt to Save the 6-year-old Girl Profiled in the New York Times Last Week (The Atlantic)

In January, many of us activists in Afghanistan were enraged as we read in the BBC about a 6-year-old girl named Naghma who was going to be sold by her father to settle a family debt. Naghma's father had taken some 250,000 Rupees (around $2,500) from a relative a year back, and having suffered the insecurities of Helmand, they took refuge in one of the camps in Kabul. Now, he was prepared to give away his daughter to the other family in order to settle the debt.

Since I work on cases of violence against women and provide support to women at risk, I immediately contacted the Ministry of Interior to intervene against the proposed sale. According to the laws of Afghanistan, selling anyone for any purpose is illegal and, as per the 2009 Elimination of Violence against Women Law (considered a huge achievement here), the father, the tribal elders who held the trial-like jirga process, and the relative who agreed to the engagement would all be jailed for at least three to six years.

To find out a way to intervene and help Naghma, a group of activists gathered and debated whether to push for the arrest of the father, pay the debt, or try to cancel the elder's decision to marry off Naghma.

We assigned three women from our group to go and assess the situation in the camp. What we learned was very disheartening. The team came back confirming the miserable condition of the family, saying that the mother was seriously ill, Naghma's brother had frozen to death during the cold winter, and that apart from a few pieces of bread, the family hadn't eaten anything else during the two days of the visit. However, the more concerning finding was that there were a couple of motorcycles outside the tent that belonged to Naghma's brothers. The team asked why they didn't sell off their motorcycles to settle the debt, but Naghma's father, Taj Mohammad, refused to respond. For me, this set off alarm bells that we shouldn't pay the debt ourselves because Mohammad would simply try to resell her again, since he would know that there are people willing to pay off his debt.

Soon after that, I contacted a couple of emergency aid groups and asked them to help the family with their basic needs. One of the local charity foundations went to the camp and provided the family with blankets, some food, and utensils.

I kept pushing for legal action because I realized that the father had at least one more option before selling off Naghma - he could've sold those motorbikes to settle the debt, or at the very least asked for support from the charity organizations that are active in his camp. That's in addition to the fact that the tribal elders are equally complicit in this trade and should be taught a lesson that, at least in Kabul, where there are law enforcement agencies and we shouldn't allow such a public precedent of selling girls.

During this whole time, I tried and failed to get the Ministry of Interior's attention to the issue. I was eventually promised by a friend who works at the Ministry that they would intervene. We assumed that the Ministry of Interior will take care of the issue because it was made public by the BBC report.

A few months later, I was shocked when I was told that a New York Timesjournalist was interviewing the family. I again stressed the point that we should not pay the debt because this would become a trend that not only Mohammed, but others in the camp, would repeat.

Right after the Times interview, I sent my colleagues to find out what happened to Naghma and went to talk to the Kabul Police Chief myself. At the station, we found out that the debt had been paid in early February 2013, based on a letter that was signed by a couple of witnesses, the man to whom Naghma's father was indebted, and the anonymous donor who paid the debt.

I submitted a complaint to the police to follow up on the case. Based on my complaint, the police went to find Mohammad, and then they called theTimes and told them that the debt had already been paid. If it had not been for the police intervention after our complaint, Mohammad would never have informed the Times that he had received the payment.

I asked the police to summon the father to the station and to ask him why, if the debt was paid a month ago, he was telling the Times he was threatening to sell his daughter, but the police found out he'd already fled to Uruzgan. However, he promised the police by phone that he won't try to sell off Naghma again. The police summoned Naghma's brothers and warned them in front of me that they would all be put in jail if they harm Naghma anymore.

I also spoke to Mohammad, who said the amount of the debt was more than what he received, but that he has cancelled the engagement anyway.

Once again, I assigned a couple of other colleagues to find out from the neighbors and the camp what everyone is saying about the situation. It's clear that Naghma is not necessarily safe yet. The neighbors confirmed that Mohammad now knows the way to make money is off of threatening to sell his daughter, and almost everyone we talked to agreed that once elders come together to decide a marriage, it won't be called off unless there is strict oversight by the government and police.

We could have paid the debt right after we read the story on the BBC in January, but the whole purpose was to ensure that the father and the tribal elders were held to account. Cases like this happen every day in Afghanistan, but when a story becomes public and then there is no intervention to stop it, it sets a precedent that anyone can sell off their daughters without being held accountable. But unfortunately, the person who paid this debt was either not aware of this sensitivity or didn't feel the need to consult with the women's groups in the area.

Tying the fate of Naghma to money is not only dangerous to her, but to her sisters and every other girl in this camp. The harm is already done, and I am very concerned that if there is no oversight, the father might send Naghma to Helmand in a year or so to marry the man after all.

This whole situation also reflects the fact that the concept of "first, do no harm" is often violated by donors in Afghanistan who are after quick fixes that have big consequences for the women and girls of this country. In this case, the donor has super-ceded the law and decided the fate of Naghma, ignoring the fact that she has not saved Naghma, but has put a price on her head.