A Peek Into The Life Of Women And Girls In Afghanistan

It was 2012, and there was news about a woman who had been shot to death for adultery in Afghanistan, her name was Najiba. This would have hit the headlines if it was the West, but it was Afghanistan where death and destruction are routine. The reason the story hit the headlines is that the western media picked it up and soon it was all over the wires and became a talking point in almost every home.

The surprising facet of this story was that Najiba was in her early 20s, was married and her husband had accused her of adultery. But how and where the supposed adultery took place is unknown except for the fact that she stood accused of adultery without the partner in crime being produced. The trial which lasted for one hour was conducted by the Taliban who were the judge, jury and executioner rolled into one. Najiba stood convicted and was sentenced to death. She was forced to cover her head and kneel and was repeatedly shot in the back with an assault rifle until she rolled over and died.

Villages dot Afghanistan, and each village is usually accessible by a dirt road. Some villages are so remote that donkeys and bikes are the only means of transport to get in and out. Public transports within small towns are villages are non-existent. Inter-city transport exists, but they are privately owned and operated. Afghanistan is a country only in name; power is understood when it is enforced at the point of a gun.

Afghanistan is a country only in name; power is understood when it is enforced at the point of a gun. Image source: Getty

For all practical purposes, Afghanistan is a theocratic state. Any provision for a secular law is clearly overridden by Article 3 of the Constitution which states that no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of Islam. It is a country with its Constitution at odds with itself. The criminal justice system is virtually non-existent outside the main towns which cause women like Najiba to suffer at the hands of criminals who are self-appointed judge, jury and executioners. There are more lawless areas than law-abiding areas in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is not a country but a region with many “pockets of influence” with each pocket having a warlord with his own sphere of influence. Some of the present day governors are erstwhile Mujahideen Commanders. They have exchanged their combat outfit for a three-piece suit. Their sphere of power and influence grows, shrinks and grows over a period of time like waxing and waning of the moon. It can be understood more like a lion country where each lion pride marks out its territory. The bigger the pride, the bigger the territory. Sometimes when lion territories overlap fights break out and the bigger pride shows the smaller pride who is the boss and where its territory starts and where it ends. Lesser carnivores like leopards, cheetahs, jackals are the bystanders who will flee at the slightest hint of trouble coming their way.

Afghanistan is the same – more the men and muscle – more the territory and more the bargaining power with the centre. Pashtuns are the high-class brahmins of Afghanistan, who belong to the Sunni school of Islam, they look down on lesser mortals like Hazaras who are Shias and are considered as the backward class. Uzbeks and Tajiks as the name suggests are from the erstwhile Soviet regions of present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Pashtuns cannot see eye to eye with Hazaras. Their congregations are separate, and they live separately. Inter-marriages between Pashtuns and Hazaras is a taboo and the parties if they do get involved can face the fate of Najiba if caught.

The people of Afghanistan have it bad, and the women have it worse. It is a curse to be born as a woman in Afghanistan. A woman when she comes of age has to be married or rather has to be sold. There is a question of ‘Mehar’ or ‘dowry’ which is paid by the bridegroom to the parents of the bride. Mehar and beauty quotient are directly proportional – more the beauty the more is the Mehar. The Consular Section is an education of sorts, where it is often seen that aged men having young wives are quite common (sometimes as high as 26 years age difference).

A woman when she comes of age has to be married or rather has to be sold. Image source: Getty

It is easy to fathom why men with good financial sense put aside a certain sum. Unlike other countries where money is set aside for the “rainy day” or “retirement” in Afghan scheme of things, it is also for what if a high ‘beauty quotient’ comes along. So when a high ‘beauty quotient’ does come along, a portion of the precious retirement savings comes in handy. And this is where the three-word divorce comes in handy because at any one time only four wives are allowed. So out goes the oldest and in comes the newest. Sounds so much like musical chair!!!

There was a curious case of a young man who against all logic and stereotypes fell in love with an Afghan woman and wanted to marry her. The story is good so far, but the first hurdle was ‘Mehar’. Since money was something he did not have, in his naivety he approached his father, who listened very carefully to the story recounted by his son.  His son promised the father to pay back every penny of Mehar right from the first salary he would get. Father was curious to find out more about the girl who had captivated his son. So the son arranged for a meeting. But then the story goes haywire from this point.

The father too fell in love with the girl his son was proposing to marry. So the boy’s father approaches the girl’s father and agrees to pay double the Mehar for the girl and the girl’s father agrees. The story ends with the father getting a wife and son getting a mother. Heartbreak for one, amusing for many. There was another incident involving two sisters one of whom fell in love with a man in the neighbourhood. Soon the other sister finds out and starts taunting and threatening the other endlessly for fun. Unable to bear the taunt the one in love sits in a public park consumes rat poison. The public on seeing a woman frothing at the mouth takes her to the hospital, where she is declared brought dead.

The father on hearing that one of his daughters has died gets a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. The other sister on realizing how her folly has led to the death of one and nearly killed the other and unable to bear the guilt takes her own life. The father eventually recovers from his heart attack and brought home. On entering the home he finds two coffins neatly laid out. He asks the people around him “Only one daughter of mine has died, why there are two coffins?” For every sad story that comes to light, there are ten others that are buried under the dust and forgotten, and it is always a tragedy that makes a great story. If Najiba had married and lived happily ever after it is not a great story worth recounting, but it is the tragedy which makes it riveting.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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