We shall prepare the path for you and your children
We shall fight now so that you shall survive
We shall die now so that you shall live.
Suraya Pakzad grew up during the years of armed resistance against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. Fearing for their teenage daughter’s future, her parents arranged for her to marry at the age of 14. At 15, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter. Her father and her husband were both educated men, and neither of them stopped her from studying. But she hid her marriage from classmates and teachers, since school rules prohibited wives from studying alongside unmarried students.
By the time she earned her literature degree at Kabul University in 1992, Suraya already had three daughters. In 1998 she began to help Afghan women in Kabul by setting up covert schools for girls under the oppressive rule of Taliban. She started in her home in defiance of them, who banned females going to school or being educated. Pakzad was the first to register a woman NGO in the post-Taliban era and quickly got the attention of international donors for her work. “Then I never looked back and was able to build a core team of not highly qualified but dedicated people that helped me a lot to support vulnerable women and families”.
In 2004, the Board of Directors of Voice of Women Organization (VWO), the non-governmental, non-political and non-profit organization she created, realized that the need for assistance to the women of the Western Region of Afghanistan was largely unfilled and the Head Office of the organization was shifted to the Western city of Herat.
VWO’s ongoing projects (the total number of current beneficiaries runs into tens of thousands) include the Herat Women Shelter, established in 2003 by UNHCR on temporary basis for at risk women returning from neighbouring Iran, the Badghis Women Shelter, providing accommodation, food, psychosocial counselling, legal support and vocational training to at risk women and victims of human trafficking, the Family Conflict Resolution Center, the Drug Addicted Adolescents, Women and Children Treatment & Rehabilitation Centers and the WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygienic project), designed to provide sanitation awareness to the rural communities. VWO’s completed projects included teacher training programs and vocational training projects providing facilities to women interested in carpet weaving, basic business and marketing training skills and the Silk Production Program, which led to a silk production corporation center. Over 100 project staff, 60% is women and so are almost 90% of VWO project beneficiaries.
In March 2008, Pakzad received the Women of Courage 2008 award by the US State Department. In December 2008, she was awarded the National Medal by the President of Afghanistan. In May 2009 she was recognized by the TIME Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential persons.
Which are the main obstacles you have to face everyday while carrying out your job?
Life threats and the lack of both long term funds to make VWO sustainable and of quality female staff (due to lack of capacity building programmes).
Do you have any kind of protection?
I do not have any body guards as such to protect me. I don’t like to have an armed bodyguard as a civil society member, besides that I enjoy an all out support from the communities and have excellent reputation.
I only have security cameras installed at my residence for surveillance and I am planning to have 24/7 watchmen at the gates of my residence in near future.
One of VWO’s objectives is to raise awareness on self immolation and your actions included a “Self Immolation Prevention campaign” and is expecting to start a second phase of the project (agreements have been signed with UNICEF and HumaniTerra International France and the staff recruitment process is now taking place).
How big is the issue of women’s self immolation today in Afghanistan?
May not be that big as a whole in Afghanistan but alarming in the Western region. Only last month ten cases have been reported in the Herat regional hospital. Fifteen cases were reported in two weeks of November, 2009. The phenomenon is an overflow of the neighbouring Iranian culture and is a serious threat to the society. Women think that they should not die silently, that deaths by poison will not attract the attention of the society and that other girls would be saved.
What are the main reasons behind it?
Early and forced marriages, drug addicted husbands, domestic violence and post Trauma Stress Disorder.
What is the core of the campaign?
Engaging with communities, stakeholders and decision makers, changing the behaviour and perspective of male decision makers towards women’s rights, raising awareness of women’s rights to ensure reduction in violence against them, highlighting the hazards of self immolation and the importance of human life.
What have you achieved?
From 2007 to 2008 violence cases have been reduced from 384 to 70. More cases of domestic violence have been reported and more families are consulting NGO offices.
Many of your projects are or have been funded by the US government, which is not only the one who funded mujahedins but also the source of bombing, illegal detentions and a contributor to the chaos reigning in your country.
How do you feel about this double role of the US and how about your dependence on its help?
US government is not the name of a single entity. It is rather a diverse group of various state and non-state actors. They are the leaders of the international community and they are obliged to help out Afghanistan. Their negative actions were in the past politically motivated for some vested interest. Today we are happy that they are fulfilling their responsibilities.
Do you feel that since the International forces took control over Afghanistan human rights have increased or not? To what extent?
We definitely have made some progress in some areas. Women are now freely going to offices and millions of girls have resumed their academic careers. The Constitution guarantees equal rights to men and women, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is in place and the country has seen a couple of parliamentary elections. We have a very active media and freedom of speech and Afghanistan is a signatory to all the international conventions. The democratic process is getting its roots in the society and Talibanization has received severe blows. Still, we have to achieve a lot to be able to proudly stand in the international community.
The Herat’s area is controlled by the Italian contingent. How does it interact with VWO and how is it perceived by the local people?
The local people have been witnessing the control of Provincial Rehabilitation Teams (PRTs) ever since the fall of Taliban and have almost grew accustomed. The people of Herat seem to be more comfortable with the Italian contingent in comparison to their predecessors.
VWO enjoys excellent relations with the contingent and a number of VWO projects have received in-kind assistance from them.
How are the Taliban perceived and how do they interact with VWO?
VWO does not have to deal directly with the Taliban. The areas under the control of Taliban are either avoided by the aid community or we keep very low profile there. But even then we are operating in provinces like Farah and Badghis considered as strongholds of the Taliban. We do put our lives at stake at certain times as we are carrying out some of the most controversial projects such shelter for run-away women and girls in Badghis province. The Taliban are deadly against the VWO basic goal of promoting women’s rights. As such they might not see VWO so friendly.
The necessity to deal with Taliban is a common belief among the international experts on Afghanistan. What do you think about it?
The engagement of Taliban for a broader peace pact in Afghanistan is eminent. They are a power and the last decade has proved that they are not beatable. So it is better not to waste time and do everything possible for peace BUT without compromising the women’s rights. The progress made during the last ten years with regard to the human and women’s rights MUST not be derailed and HAS to be promoted under all circumstances.
When you read or hear about the situation of women and children in your country told from the outside, do you feel we get a real image of the situation?
The various surveys carried out by UN and other agencies do represent a close picture of most of the sectors but I still believe that a lot about Afghanistan is not known to the outside world. Sometimes a very rosy picture is portrayed in terms of women’s rights as Western governments have to please their tax payers. As such what you see is only half of the truth.
What is the most important thing that we are not told?
First of all the magnitude of the success is generally exaggerated in the Western media. The other is the intention of the Afghan leaders. They speak of women’s rights in public and in media but actually there is a lack of a genuine will of following their words with concrete actions. Consequently the international community is also bound to compromise on this account as they have to deal with the local leadership and get their job done.
Which are the main obstacles preventing women to obtain equal rights and duties compared to men in nowadays Afghanistan?
Gender discrimination, centuries old culture full of false traditions and illogical social taboos, illiteracy, lack of awareness of outside world, poverty and unemployment, lack of capacity to enjoy freedom and rights and the negative perspective of the society about the potential of women.
How could this be overcome and where do you see signs of change if at all?
Well, nothing can be achieved overnight for this whole spectrum of calamities but I think a realistic and holistic approach of the international community can bring some change. A women action plan is already in place for the next decade in line with the UN millennium development goals. Things have started to change but we need to provide more economic opportunities to the war torn population to be able to look forward to a better life rather than joining the warlords.
How do children live in a country that, according to UNICEF, has the world’s highest infant mortality rate?
The majority of Afghan children are living below the poverty line and prone to a variety of fatal threats. Diseases, poverty, child-labour, child trafficking, landmines and severe weather conditions. The international aid community is doing its best but lack of security and donor fatigue are hindering major successes. Sometimes there is lack of enough interaction in the programs. We need to change the life of a whole family to bring a change into the life of a child. A report says that 3 million widows are there with an average of 6 children. When these women do not have economic opportunities, their children also suffer. Only a fraction of Afghan children are enjoying life.
How do you think you made it as a woman to get where you are?
Being an educated woman and a member of an educated family motivates you to do something to reduce the miseries of other people.
What did you have to renounce to in order to do what you do?
First of all family life and proper attention to my children, then my privacy and safety, especially when travelling to dangerous parts of Afghanistan. My own young daughter could not understand me.
Do you ever regret it?
Never ever. No way. I am actually proud of it. I have always been telling people that it is a one-way traffic for me. I have a very clear vision of paving the road for the upcoming generations.
What is your biggest fear?
To lose whatever has been gained by the Afghans, as a nation, up until now.
You always wear a scarf (hijab). When we think about Muslim women we tend to see their use of veils as an imposition and a sign of lack of freedom. Do you wear it because you have to or because you want to?
I am a Muslim and I am very much happy to follow Islam. I am against the “Burka” but hijab does not pose any threat to my freedom, it brings me more respect from the society and it helps me engage with the community and makes my work easier. If it is seen as a sign of backwardness in the West, I can’t help this wrong perspective.
I am sure there have been many unique personal stories behind VWO but could you just tell me one that touched you in a special way?
When I could rescue an 11 year old girl from a 50 year old husband. She was living in a hell for more than 2 years and had no hope at all. VWO took the case to the court and secured a divorce for the child. She is now reintegrated back into her family and told us that she would go back to school now. It was a very touching moment when she expressed her desire to get educated.
Whenever I rescue a girl or a woman from a drug addicted husband, the smile I see on their faces after getting a divorce brings an inner peace to me. When I go to bed at night, I have a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of achievement.
Where do you see yourself in the future and what would you like to be doing?
I would like to continue to travel on the same bumpy road unless I see a satisfying change in the Afghan societies and lives of Afghan women. I would always be challenging the social taboos and cultural barriers.