Women are at the frontline in protecting women's human rights in Afghanistan. They include activists, journalists, teachers, health professionals, and politicians. They play a vital role in defending women rights, for example, by running literacy classes for women, running safe houses for survivors of domestic violence and raising awareness about the dangers of forced and early marriage.
Many Afghan women human rights defenders have been killed or threatened because of their activities, while some have fled the country. They face intimidation and attacks by powerful conservative elements in society, including members of the government, and the Taliban and other armed opposition groups who perceive their work as defying cultural, religious and social norms about the role of women in society. Others are threatened or attacked by family members who may be embarrassed by their outspokenness or their work.
Amnesty International spoke to four brave and committed women – some who have paid a high price for their bravery – about the risks they face in championing the rights of women and girls. For security reasons, some names* have been changed.
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Parween – Headmistress, Laghman province
Parween, a headmistress from Laghman province, was targeted for running a girls' school. After receiving repeated threats from unknown men warning her to stop working, her son, Hamayoon, was abducted and killed. Here, she tells Amnesty International her story.
"In April 2009 my young son Hamayoon, who was 18 years-old at the time, was kidnapped by unknown men. They are the people who are opposed to the progress and are the enemies of this country. Three days later I received a call from the kidnappers who told me that I could talk to my son for as long as I wanted as this was the last time I would speak to him.
"My husband spoke to them and asked them why are you doing this to us? They said ‘because you're working for the government [running a girls' school] and for the Americans. Your wife is working, she was a [parliamentary] candidate, and was awarded the Malalai gold medal by Afghan-Americans. And you still say you have done nothing and ask why we are cruel to you?'
"They handed the phone to my son and he asked me to come and take him back home. My son said that the kidnappers had told him to warn your mother and father to stop working otherwise they would face far severe consequences. That was the last time I spoke to my son.
"A year and three months later, after heavy rainfall, a flood brought my son's corpse to a Gardel desert. His body was caught in a tree. Nomads living close by found his body and contacted the government and police who contacted us. My husband went to the police station and recognised the body as our son's. His body was taken to the public health hospital. We received his body from there and buried him.
"The hospital gave us the post-mortem report. My son had 12 gun shot wounds to his body. The doctors told us that he had been killed at least three months before.
"Before that, when we had been searching for him, we saw some 30 other corpses. My husband and his brothers, other relatives and villagers, whenever they heard that a corpse had been recovered, went rushing to see if it was my son's body. We even opened some unknown graves to search for my son's body. We saw corpses which were half-eaten by animals, rotten bodies, some corpse had ropes around their necks, some had been strangled by strings which were still wrapped around their necks, others had gun shot wounds to their heads and other parts of their bodies. We suffered a lot of torment searching for my son. We are still receiving death threats but we continue with our work.
"We registered the kidnapping of my son with all the government agencies, like the police, the National Directorate of Security [Afghanistan's Intelligence Service]. The NDS said that all the mobile numbers [of the kidnappers] originated from different provinces, like Kabul, Mazar, Laghman, Logar, and were linked to fake ID cards, making it very difficult to trace these people. We don't have a strong government to investigate and find these people.
"I also went to human rights organisations, but no one listened to what we had to say. Nobody cares what is happening to us.
"On 21 February 2012, when I was returning home from work by car, they detonated a bomb and my husband received serious wounds to his face and hands. The children and I had a lucky escape and received minor injuries but the car was completely destroyed.
"We don't feel safe anymore now and we don't know what to do. We have left our house. We are always on the move from one place to another and from one house to another. We are all living in a fear. Whenever there is sound at the front door I get scared that something bad may happen to us. My children are always scared, even in their sleep and while awake. Whenever the kidnappers traced our new mobile number they made threatening phone calls. I don't know what to do. We are all suffering from mental health problems because of the continuous threats.
"My father was a liberal and educated man. He gave us an education and religious lessons and told us that we should work for the progress and prosperity of our country.
"If we want we can also leave this place and run away, but this is not our aim. Our main goal is to serve the people of this country by promoting education for children and rebuilding the country.
"When my father was dying he took a vow from his children that we would serve the country even if this meant sacrificing our lives. So we are committed to fulfilling our father's wish and the only way to fight ignorant people is to promote education in this country."
Shala* women's rights activist and teacher, Helmand Province
Shala works as a woman's rights activist and teacher in Helmand province, where Taliban control and influence is widespread. Here she tells Amnesty International about the risks and challenges she faces in her work.
There are lots of risks for women working in Helmand. We go to work fully covered under the burqa [veil]. The society here is very restrictive towards woman and conservative elements do not like it when women leave the home and work in an office with men who are not family members.
I receive lots of threatening phone calls, warning me not to leave the house and there are people following me. They warn me not go to work or help anyone. They said "you provoke our youth". I have received so many threats by phone but, despite this, I continue with my work.
I deal with cases of domestic violence, women committing suicide and self-immolations. For example, I recently had a case of an 18-year-old woman who came to me and said her husband had beaten her and kept her hanging by a rope inside a well for three days. Her body was covered in marks showing that she had been severely beaten and abused. We don't have shelters for women here in Helmand, so I took her to the local Children's Centre. I don't know what happened to her.
I also went with the police to her house. The surrounding area was cordoned off and her husband was arrested. Very rarely do the police get involved and arrest people who abuse women. We have lots of problems dealing with these kinds of cases.
Most of these domestic cases are resolved outside the usual legal procedures. In some cases, family disputes are resolved by village elders and women are then mostly victimised. Most cases relating to family disputes are not reported to the government. If a woman goes to the government office to make a complaint against her husband she is branded a woman of bad character and is no longer respected.
There are about 20 to 30 women in Helmand prison, most of them young and all have suffered domestic violence. They were abused by their husbands and wanted a divorce. They don't have a defence lawyer and the police are not addressing their problems. There is too much discrimination against women. Many of the women have given birth in the prison, some had one child, others had two. There is no school in the prison for the children, the prison just gives them food, and clothes occasionally.
Once the transition [of security responsibility from international to Afghan forces] started, the security situation deteriorated in Helmand and many people lost their jobs because foreign development programmes ceased operating. Now many people are jobless and facing economic hardship. A large number of people were working for [international] Provincial Reconstruction Team development programmes like constructing a road, mosque or school. This was a source of income for people. The lack of job opportunities is linked to insecurity, murder, theft and other crimes. So, since then, the problems have increased for the people of Helmand.
Dr. D. works as a gynaecologist providing healthcare to women suffering from abuse, including rape and domestic violence. Here she tells Amnesty International how her family was targeted by the Taliban as a result of her work.
The problems started back in 2007 when I was living in Kunar province. I was working in a clinic frequently carrying out abortions on girls who had fallen pregnant after being raped by their male relatives. There were different kinds of cases, for example, girls pregnant by their uncles, others by their brother-in-laws. They came to my clinic because they had to have an abortion [or they would have been killed by their relatives or members or their community as an "honour" killing]. I would receive threatening night letters and phone calls from the Taliban, warning that they would kill me and my family because of my work.
Two years later, in March 2009, it was evening and I heard an explosion and rushed outside. My children had been playing in the front yard. My 11-year-old son was very badly wounded and lying on the ground. I was shocked and don't remember what happened next.
My son had to have medical treatment for almost a year and we were busy moving him from hospital to hospital. The incident badly affected him. He became mentally ill. He is always tired and depressed and always asks why this incident happened to him.
Six months later, my 22-year old brother was also killed in a grenade attack in front of our house. They threw a grenade at him while he was walking to our home. We have suffered a lot in our life.
We reported the threats to the government, but nobody listened to us and we have felt very discouraged. They have done nothing so far. I tried to seek justice and asked the government agencies to find the perpetrators, but they ignored us and did nothing.
We moved from Kunar in 2009 after my son was wounded in the grenade attack. Now I have stopped doing abortions and keep a low profile at work. Nobody knows my address. If they know my whereabouts they will start threatening me again.
The situation here is very bad for women. Women have problems going out to work and girls are prevented from going to school. There are too many cases of violence against women. I have witnessed 30 to 50 cases in a month. When I tell [the women] to report their case to the police they refuse because their family would be ashamed of them and would treat them very badly. They don't go to the police and they tolerate the violence and harassment.
We have to help our people, particularly women, they need us and we have to serve the country and the people. I can't sit at home and doing nothing, this is not in my nature.
Aziza Khair Andish, civil society and human rights activist, Herat city
Aziza, a women human rights activist from Herat city, describes to Amnesty International her work in universities against extremism and her hopes and fears for the future, as the Afghan government pursues peace with the Taliban.
Working is not easy for women in a traditional, male-dominated society like Herat. The atmosphere for women in the workplace, particularly in government offices, is very difficult. For example, if a woman has a senior position, the male staff will not accept her as their boss and will constantly challenge her authority; so that, instead of focusing on their work, women have to struggle to assert their authority.
In Herat there are also severe extremist challenges. There are extremists who are obstructing the work of civil society, but so far we have been successful in challenging them. We have worked tirelessly to eradicate extremism and promote civil society and human rights networks. Last year we were able to create a coordination body among civil society networks and human rights organisations, which resulted in the establishment of more media outlets. These outlets have played a very important role in promoting human rights and strengthening the role of civil society.
Most of the time we go to universities to promote human rights among the students because extremists are rooted in our universities and are provoking students against civil society and human rights values. We usually enlist liberal religious leaders to help us in our programmes as they can easily provide justification for our work. They have better knowledge of Islam and they can easily argue and reason with the extremists.
Sometimes, we organise an open discussion and invite liberal religious scholars and democrats and intellectuals to come and discuss the issue of human rights and they can freely speak their views. We also invite some traditional mullahs to the open discussion to share their views as well. We have succeeded in promoting the culture of tolerance which makes the extremists listen to the opposite viewpoint as well.
Recently a young singer Shafeeq Murid wanted to perform a musical concert in Herat city, but a radical mullah campaigned against this concert and did not allow it to happen. Since then we increased our fight against fundamentalism in Herat and, in some way, we succeeded in our goal as [the mullah] left Herat. After he left, all the propaganda against human rights and civil society stopped. It was a big achievement by the human rights activists and we will continue our work to eliminate fundamentalism.
We don't accept peace without justice; unsustainable peace and with no transparency. We know that there is no transparency in the peace process and we don't know what is going on behind the curtains. Sometimes we hear from the Taliban website about the peace process.
I, personally along with other human rights activists and members of the civil society, am trying to be optimistic about the future. We do our best to take advantage of the current opportunities which are available now. Our aim is to have a better life and if we lose our hope and stop working our situation may get worse.