Monthly Archives: March 2010

No Access to Justice for Girls in Afghanistan

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Just because women no longer get stoned in public in Afghanistan, does not mean that a functioning law enforcement or judicial system will guarantee them justice. Afghanistan’s prisons are packed with women facing charges of “moral crimes.” Many of these women are actually girls, under the age of 18, jailed for activities hardly worthy of punishment by their own parents, let alone the judicial system.

The girls are being held for things such as running away from home (which is sometimes categorized as kidnapping—a crime committed against oneself, by oneself). Although there is no law against this, or the other so-called crime of walking down the street with a male of no relation, Article 130 of Afghanistan’s constitution allows courts to “rule in a way that attains justice in the best manner.” This often means punishing young girls that may simply be straying from social norms.

Sometimes young girls, whose marriages are arranged by their parents to much older men without their consent, will try to escape this fate by running away. Others have been accused of adultery because of similar circumstances. Once these girls are put in front of a judge, they have little hope of coming out on top. If they speak up they are seen as rebellious, and if they keep quiet they are seen as guilty.

The only cure for this over-sensitized criminal justice system, will be more participation by women, in civil society, and in the government. Women must show their government that this treatment of their daughters is not OK. Women must be the ones to amend these laws. The ability to participate in politics is at the core of our mission in Afghanistan. At Barakat we believe that the education of women is essential for a functioning democracy. If Afghanistan has any chance at successful reconstruction, women must be involved.

If women cannot speak for themselves who will speak for them?

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The Other Victims of Extremism–The Mothers

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In July of 2009, President Obama made a speech in Ghana in which he said, “It is the death sentence of a society to force children to kill in wars.” Although the conscription of children in wars is a phenomenon often associated with Africa, it is a problem that has infected many other areas of the world as well. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with other countries in the region, the use of children by extremist militants is systematic and disturbing.

Watching videos that depict the training of children to become “warriors,” it is hard not to ask yourself, “How could you ever send your son here?” That’s because from a western perspective, it’s incomprehensible. In these areas, however, families are so poor that it seems to them that the best future for their children is religious schools. These schools provide necessities that the parents sometimes can’t. Yet they sometimes also provide something else. A future headed toward hate and, death.

Of course, this is not always the case. In the West the term madrassa (which in Arabic literally means, a place where learning or studying is done) has gotten a negative connotation mistaken to mean “terrorist training camps.” But most madrassas are simply schools. Religious or secular, madrassa can refer to a variety of different kinds of learning institutions. They usually refer to schools that provide training to become imams, or religious leaders. A very small portion, however, are training children to become soldiers in a “holy war.”

In targeting the root of this problem, it would be difficult to go after those who run these schools. For them, the ideology is set, their mission seems clear, and if one “school” is destroyed another could easily pop up the next day. Targeting the values of a society would be the alternative. In an article by the Christian Science Monitor, mothers of children recruited for extremism in Pakistan’s South Waziristan express their concerns for their sons. Their placement in society as women of very conservative, traditional families makes their opinion stifled and suppressed. They are afraid to protest the action of family members, but do not agree with them.

Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, believes that educating women can transform these societies. Not only would education bring greater economic prosperity for their families and communities, it could also help change the currents of extremism that so brutally take hold of these areas. At Barakat, we agree. We believe that the best future for the children of these areas is one of hope, not one of ignorance. In our upcoming printed newsletter we also discuss how important educating boys is. These mothers currently cannot provide a better future for their sons. It may seem hopeless but it doesn’t have to be. Education can be the first step to a brighter future for these little boys and their mothers.

Women on the Front Line in a Battle for the “Hearts and Minds” of the Afghan People

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The sway of public opinion, both domestic and international, can drastically affect the outcome of a war. The U.S. Marines seem to have just realized that they have no idea how half of the population in Afghanistan views them. That’s because women rarely interact with the male dominated U.S. forces on the ground. Next month they will send the first “female engagement teams” to try to better connect to the female population in Afghanistan. Since a large portion of the population of women feel uncomfortable talking to men, especially soldiers, these women will bridge the gap between U.S. forces and Afghan women.

These women will undergo a completely different kind of training—one of cultural awareness, and people skills. The operation, however, is three-fold. One aspect of it aims to win over the female population by talking with them and relating to them, woman to woman. Another aspect is learning what the community really needs, so that aid can be spent most effectively, and infrastructure can be rebuilt. The last aspect is intelligence related—the possibility that some of these women might have information about the Taliban.

It seems like common sense to utilize every aspect of diplomatic relations in wartime. Perhaps it’s because women in Afghanistan rarely draw attention to themselves, or because we tend to think strictly in military strategy rather than humanitarian strategy, but the fact that Afghan women have been left out of the war-winning equation until now is a little perplexing.  Understanding the importance of women in rebuilding a society is essential. Especially a peaceful society. The narrow focus on war will only perpetuate itself. But a focus on peace, on education, on healthcare, and on human rights will direct society towards stability.

Who knows about these issues in Afghanistan better than women? The women have, after all, been confined to their homes for years. They have had to directly confront the realities of a non-existent infrastructure, and a non-functioning public sector. At Barakat we understand how important the education and health of women are to a functioning society. That’s why our programs focus on equipping them with the tools they need to participate in a democratic society. Worldwide, and especially in Afghanistan, women are the key to a successful future.

International Women’s Day

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Yesterday marked the 99th annual International Women’s Day; a holiday that honors achievements made by women around the world, and brings light to the unfortunate inequalities that still exist. Celebrations took place in all different countries, including a ceremony at the White House. Eighteen countries held a “Join Me on the Bridge” campaign on more than 100 bridges worldwide, which honored women from war devastated areas, and symbolized the crossing over into a better world.

Although there are still glass ceilings to break, and wage gaps to fill here in the U.S., I feel privileged compared to women elsewhere. In the speech that President Obama gave, he talked about his daughters and their futures. Their future seems much brighter here then it would have been in Obama’s previous home of Indonesia, or his family’s home in Kenya. Women are slowly gaining rights, but sadly there is still a long way to go. Sexual violence, inequality in the courts, lack of career opportunities, and extreme poverty still affect countless women globally. Hurting women means a hurting society.

Last month during a conference held at the UN, diplomats, human rights activists, and celebrities alike discussed the changes that need to be made to benefit women. The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, announced the launching of a campaign called, “The Mother’s Army,” which is based on the idea that the health status and education of mothers, and their role as leaders, will benefit their children, especially their daughters. Hand in Hand International and Avon Foundation for Women also pledged money towards initiatives meant to aid and strengthen women.

There will always be tragedies, and one thing to learn from the media is that the tragedies will always be front page. It is easy to recognize them and it is easy to be discouraged by them. What are more difficult to find sometimes, are the inspirational stories. The women helping other women to reach their full potential. At Barakat we know these women. We work with them every day. We’ll be honoring them in all of our publication this month for Women’s History Month. And we aren’t the only ones showing our gratitude for these women. Women organizations across the world are doing the same thing. Women for women international held the “Join Me at the Bridge” walk in New York, across the Brooklyn Bridge. The turnout was tremendous, and despite the ongoing tragedies across the world, I can’t help but to feel hopeful that together, we can all make a difference.

The Important Role of Role Models

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Most people would say that they have one, entire organizations are centered on the idea of one, and now, in Liberia, women can draw strength from them. Role models can have major impacts on the people around them and can serve to strengthen communities in ways that other approaches cannot. It’s the classic school of thought, “if she can do it, then I can do it.”

In 2007 the UN tried a gender experiment by sending an all-female, Indian police force into Liberia to aid women. They chose Liberia because it has been an area of intense sexual violence against women. The UN recognized that women are often more traumatized then men in times of conflict, because they are victims of sexual abuse. They brought in the women peacekeeping forces to aid Liberian women in ways men cannot: to provide security and comfort, to teach them self-defense, and to assist them in seeking medical care.

The program seems to being showing signs of success, as troops were just replaced last week as part of a rotation. Although the stories have been heart-wrenching at times, troops provide not only essential services to women, but also serve as role models for the population. The idea of a strong woman doing the same job as a man, and doing it just as well, can be extremely inspiring. More numbers of Liberian women are joining the police force now, for example. Liberia also boasts the only female president, an extraordinary achievement for a country so plagued by sexual violence.

At Barakat, we understand the importance of role models. All of our teachers are locals; many of them women, and some even graduates of Barakat’s programs themselves. We make a special effort to train women in the area of human rights, so they can pass on their knowledge of their rights and their confidence in themselves.

The UN ought to take on more experiments like the one in Liberia. With strong role models that promote healthy values in women, societies can grow in unimaginable ways.