Tree nursery worker, Surkhrud
by Dr. Mariam Raqib
Dr. Raqib's work conducting forest and orchard restoration projects as director of Afghanistan Samsortya took her to Kabul, Jalalabad and Surkhrud during Sep.-Nov., 2011. On the trip she also interviewed clients of the Afghanistan Women's Council, which provides basic goods and training to people around the country, including in Ningrahar province where she interviewed villagers.
Women in Afghanistan are concerned with issues that are universal in nature. They want their basic needs and the basic needs of their loved ones satisfied. Food, shelter, clothing, security, and the freedom to be mobile are of primary importance. They want to feel safe, they want to feed their children, provide them with medication, and send them to school. But Afghan women are not in control of their destinies; others -- the Taliban, NATO, the U.S., and other international aid agencies -- are self appointed guardians, and advocates of women.
Health indicators are dismal. Life expectancy for men is 49 and for women 51 years. According to UNICEF, 68% of children under five suffer from either stunting or wasting due to malnutrition. One in five children die before their fifth birthday. Access to clean water is very limited.
Literacy rates are among the lowest in the world, 28% overall and 13% for women. This is closely related to lack of security and safety in the country. Yes, there are schools. But where is the security to leave the house to go to those schools? Many schools also existed during the time Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban also, but in secret. What keeps people at home not going to school? Lawlessness, gender related violence, threats from fundamentalist elements, including the Taliban and Northern Alliance gangs and militias, suicide bombings, land mines, and bombings by foreign militaries prevail and continue to threaten the population.
PTSD is not a disease that exclusively plagues soldiers. Women complain of extreme levels of stress regarding uncertainty in their lives and in the lives of their family members. They fear for their children, husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. They are not safe from atrocities from the Taliban, nor from the occupiers.
House to house searches are brutal, dehumanizing, and they instill fear in the population, including young children. Soldiers break into homes in the middle of the night, yelling and screaming obscenities at the residents, separating fathers from their children. The children are traumatized as they watch the soldiers rummage through their belongings, breaking things, disregarding the impact on the people.
Other hardships regarding women include cooking food using plastics, like bits of old slippers and other items that children collect from trash piles. While cooking they inhale the poisonous smoke, and which also contaminates the food. Lack of wood and fuel can be addressed, and in fact, an inspiration for establishing Samsortya's tree nurseries was when I witnessed women cooking in such conditions.
Women report having miscarriages at high rates, and this is likely connected with both pollution and the use of various weapons such as depleted uranium. I was told of fetuses with such strange defects that they are unrecognizable as human. In addition, people say Afghans are dying of cancer at a much higher rate than before. Sadly, there is very little documentation -- scientific, or otherwise -- regarding these tragedies, due to the disruptions of war.
One of the worst effects of the war for women and everyone is pollution. Dust fills the air all the time because of the lack of trees and bushes. But even worse is the noise pollution. For example, drones make a very penetrating noise that goes on and on.
Helicopters make an enormous roar traveling in pairs. Helicopters, because the elites do not travel by roads, they go by air. They are especially large and very dark, like vultures. Also there is the noise of tanks and trucks rumbling by, which rattles the buildings you are in. Lines of sand colored trucks as big as a room go by, with modern day cannons on top. The soldiers have on helmets and body armor, but one can still sense their fear. Something about the posture. Everywhere is tense.
Now women do not feel safe leaving the house, and if they do leave the house, they don't feel safe without wearing the burqa. Even in Kabul this is now the case. My friend and I went to meet a woman from the U.S. State Department and she said to my friend, "Why do you wear the burqa? Why not be modern?" She had no idea how bad the security situation is for women in Afghanistan.
Bottom line on whether women have made progress under NATO? The United States is in Afghanistan to promote its own policies, and establish military bases from which they can control Asia. Afghan women, and children are not of any concern. They are used as political tools to pacify and, even more importantly, to deceive the American public.