Speaker by Various Artists

Bulletin from Kabul

by Marianne Elliot

Marianne Elliot is a human rights lawyer and policy consultant who has worked in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Timor-Leste and New Zealand. In late December 2005 she moved to Afghanistan. Jolisa Gracewood interviewed Marianne via e-mail about how things look from Kabul.

So, what are you doing in Afghanistan?

I live in Kabul where I’m the advisor for the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRC), which is a consortium of 14 Afghan and International non-governmental organizations plus the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. For a couple of months I've been Acting Director while the Director - a fabulous Afghan woman - was on parental leave.

These organizations come together to identify key human rights issues in Afghanistan, conduct community-based research on those issues and then carry out advocacy and lobbying based on the outcomes of the research. The guiding idea behind the consortium is that there should be more heard from "ordinary Afghans" in the policy-making process here. Based on our research, we can use our collective influence to raise those voices.

These are some of the issues we have addressed recently:

  •  the effectiveness of civic education received prior to the 2005 Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan
  •  progress in the compulsory (i.e. primary) education sector since 2003
  • how the ongoing presence and power of commanders and warlords affects the security of Afghan people.

What does an "ordinary" day look like for you?

On an "ordinary" work day, I'm pretty office-bound. My role has been to support the Board in developing a strategic plan for the coming three years, conduct an organizational review to identify our strengths and areas for development and develop a plan to build organizational capacity. I also spend a lot of time working with the Afghan staff in the office, just managing the day to day implementation of our research projects.

Outside of HRRAC I've also been doing a bit of volunteer work with some Afghan women defense lawyers who work for a women's organization here that provides free legal aid to women either accused of a crime or seeking a divorce. Often in the criminal cases the charge is zina – i.e. having sex outside of marriage. Women will be charged with this if they have been raped, in which case the onus is on them to prove that force was used. In the civil cases (seeking a divorce) the women have often been subjected to violence.

When I'm not working I lead an exceedingly normal, rather dull life. I try to get to the gym as often as possible - security restrictions mean that we don’t walk much here and so have to resort to the treadmill to keep our leg muscles in working order. There is a small but pretty decent selection of restaurants, cafes and even a bar.

Often, there are interesting (and sometimes influential) people passing through town, so there are opportunities to meet people and bend their ear with whatever topic is pressing at the time. Last week I had dinner with the NZ Ambassador, last night with the very interesting Deputy President of CARE Canada. Even without the visitors to lobby, our social discussions often drift back to local politics and other aspects of our work.

What are the biggest problems, day to day?

Do you mean my biggest problems, day to day, or the biggest problems in Afghanistan? For my part, my home and personal life is pretty easy. I'm curiously ashamed to admit it, but for the sake of transparency I'll confess that my office provides a driver who collects me from my door every morning and that my house has a gardener and housecleaner who keep my home life organized. But professionally I struggle with the limited resources we have in the face of such huge challenges, and with the need to prioritize amongst so many compelling and legitimate needs. I also struggle with my own desire to feel that I am in control of my life, to be organized and planned. Life in Afghanistan is much more chaotic than that, and I'm learning to cope.

For the country, the problems vary widely from province to province and different groups within society face different problems. But a general problem is the continuing lack of security and stability. This affects people's personal safety and their sense of personal and national stability, but it is also a barrier to the kind of investment and development that Afghanistan badly needs.

What are the biggest fears?

I don't have a lot of fears personally. I live and work in Kabul, which is relatively secure. I worry occasionally about being kidnapped, but very rarely. I never think about suicide bombings or rocket attacks unless I’m at one of the military bases or sitting in a car on Jalalabad Rd stuck in a traffic jam next to a military convoy. Those guys are the targets, unfortunately, so I don't like to get too close or stay close for too long.

My Afghan colleagues worry about the security situation deteriorating, they worry that the insurgency will spread, that the legitimacy of this new Government and Parliament will not take hold, and that the whole system will topple and chaos and violence will take over again.

My closest friend here has saved US$15,000 towards building a home for her family, and has a section and plans ready to go. But with the growth of instability into the west over the past few weeks she is wondering whether she would be wiser to keep the money in the back in case of conflict. They may need to leave the country, and in any case, if conflict breaks out property rights are quickly disregarded and there is a high risk of losing assets such as land and housing.

We heard a lot, a couple of years ago, about how ousting the Taleban would help liberate Afghan women. How's that working out?

I think that there is a group within Afghanistan, perhaps the upper and middle class here in Kabul, whose lives have really been affected by the end of the Taleban regime. Bookshops are free to sell a wide range of books, for example. Here in Kabul you can see sophisticated Afghan women wearing the latest fashions, modest certainly, but far from the burka.

But the social controls that limit the freedom of women in Afghanistan were never only about the Taleban. The Taleban represented a set of values that runs deeply through Afghan culture. These are not purely Islamic values, but they combine elements of Islamic teachings with the strong tribal traditions of, for example, Pashton-walee (the code of conduct that prescribes social behaviour in Pashtoon society).

Outside of Kabul the vast majority of the population live in small and relatively isolated social groupings, based on family and tribe, and controlled by tribal values rather than national laws and policies.

Even here in Kabul the lack of security now imposes limits that replace the moral dictates of the Taleban. An Afghan friend told me that although in theory she can now go out without her husband, the reality is that she wouldn't feel safe, so she doesn't.

There are other, more subtle, social and cultural practices that impact the lives of women. When my Afghan friend was recently expecting a baby and going in for her ante-natal checks she told me about the lack of privacy at the doctor's room. There is no waiting room, so all the patients (all women in this case) who are waiting to see the doctor sit in the consulting room while each patient is attended.

On one occasion, while she was waiting she overheard the woman ahead of her telling the doctor that she was having sexual problems – whenever her husband wanted sex she found she was not ready. The doctor told the patient that women generally don’t enjoy sex anyway, gave her some pills to relax, and sent her home.

My friend was shocked. When it was her turn to see the doctor she asked why she had not talked more with the woman and tried to understand what the roots of the problem might be. The doctor told her that if she took the time to have that kind of conversation with every woman who came into her clinic presenting emotional and psychological problems then she would never get through her patients.

I commented to my friend at the time that this approach might not be very different from what could have been expected from many GPs in New Zealand fifty years ago, but still found the lack of privacy -- or even of any notion of the need for privacy -- shocking, and vowed I would not be going to an Afghan doctor except in the most dire emergency.

The other big constraint on women’s lives is poverty. People in Afghanistan are very poor, the country rates extremely low on all the development index indicators. I read recently that one in three women in one district of the province of Badhakshan will die in childbirth. This distressing figure is partly due to social factors (the reluctance to allow women to be attended to by a male physician, and the scarcity of women doctors, for example). But it is also a result of poverty, the lack of resources to meet basic needs, both on the national scale and at the level of the individual household.

At the other end of the spectrum, even relatively well-off women face all kinds of barriers and challenges as a result of economic problems. Many of these are caused by infrastructural failings that also affect men, but which affect women in specific and unique ways. For example, my friend has now had her baby safely; she and her husband were able to choose to go to the best hospital in Afghanistan, a private hospital here in Kabul. She had only two months maternity leave, so she wanted to express milk to be stored for when she came back to work. Someone had previously brought her a pump from Dubai and I was able to find special breast-milk freezer bags on a trip out of country. All looked hopeful, except that the electricity here is so unreliable that in the end, all her frozen milk defrosted, went off, and couldn't be used.

The whole issue of power supply is a sore point with many Afghans who are furious that five years on they still don't have reliable power. (Personally, I'd put sewerage above power on my list of urgent things to do in Kabul - but then I have access to a generator and a solar panel so I'm hardly feeling the pain).

What do people need? In other words, how can anyone reading this help out?

Afghanistan needs investment - so if you are wondering where to build a cement factory then give Afghanistan some serious thought. A recent article by Anne Marlowe in the Wall Street Journal sets out a range of compelling reasons why investors in particular should be looking to Afghanistan for opportunities right now. Along with cement production, she identified a national postal service and drive-yourself rental car companies as two other opportunities ripe for the right investor.

There are also a number of excellent not-for-profit organizations here. Working through reputable organizations is a much sounder approach than simply sending goods or funds through to individuals. (I certainly wouldn’t want to find myself with the responsibility of distributing money or goods -- I wouldn’t know who needed it most or who was in the best position to make best use of different resources).

If you want to know where to start in finding a good organization to support then you could contact one of the big organizations that works with smaller local partners.

You and a group of friends may want to pool resources and support a widows' livelihood project, for example, or a girls' school. I can highly recommend Afghan Women's Education Centre. They have programmes for widows and girls, and have been around since 1991 and have a good reputation. They also work specifically for vulnerable women and children, including street children and women in prison.

Another reliable organisation is CARE International. Here's some information about the CARE Humanitarian Assistance for Widows of Afghanistan (HAWA) project, via CARE Canada's website.

Then there are other smaller organisations like PARSA. I'm not sure about their effectiveness - not because I have any reason to doubt it, just because I don't have that information.

If you don't have cash to spare, then you might want to play a role in holding your government accountable to be fully transparent about the role of international military forces in Afghanistan - what are they doing there, who are they working with and what kind of questions are being raised about their role.

The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are viewed favourably by many Afghans but the picture is not quite as simple nor as rosy as the PR story being told in most countries. Many NGOs here are concerned, for example, about PRTs involvement in development projects blurring the line between humanitarian assistance, development and military objectives.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk!

I am very interested in finding ways to communicate with the wider world about what I'm seeing here... This place is complex, layered and sometimes contradictory and I don't think that news, as a medium, is necessarily the best forum for communicating that complexity. News about Afghanistan is very carefully managed by the big donors to align with their respective national interests in this country. But there are a lot of stories that still need to be told, especially those stories about the ongoing lack of stability and security which are preventing basic services (like maternal health care) from getting to places where is it most needed.

Marianne Elliot can be reached at melliottabroad@yahoo.com.au