16 Days Campaign: U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council Interview with Women for Afghan Women Executive Director Manizha Naderi
USAWC: What types of gender-based violence does Women for Afghan Women (WAW) see most frequently among Afghan women?
MN: WAW, unfortunately, sees cases from the entire spectrum of gender-based violence, and all too often, the worst cases imaginable. Some of our clients have been victims of acid and ax attacks, severe beatings, sexual assault, forced prostitution, and other horrific abuses. While some of our clients have faced permanent and long-term disfigurement, not every mark of gender-based violence is visible. Almost all of our clients have been subject to emotional and/or psychological abuse.
USAWC: Have you observed any widespread changes in social attitudes, among men or women, toward violence against women since WAW began its work more than a decade ago?
MN: Since WAW’s inception, we have been working to change cultural attitudes and shift social norms. We have worked closely with government officials, imams, tribal leaders, and other community leaders to facilitate trainings for over 305,000 men on women’s rights as human rights. While there is still work to be done, we have seen a significant change in the power dynamics between men and women. The changes in the number of girls and school and women serving as government ministers, parliamentarians, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, and engineers is a true testament the wider acceptance of women in positions of authority and influence. Another key indicator that has begun to signal change is the way in which boys treat girls, brothers treat sisters. Continued economic opportunity and security for men and women alike are critical to helping to reduce rates of violence against women moving forward.
USAWC: What is the most heartening aspect of the work WAW does to address VAW in Afghanistan, and what is the most challenging part of your work?
MN: The most heartening aspect is the growth we see of each individual that comes to WAW – both in the children that come to our Children Support Centers, as well as the women that come our various facilities. Despite untold violence and tragedy, we have seen scores of survivors recover, expand their education, become empowered, and go on to lead happy, fulfilled lives free of violence. Security is the most obvious challenge, as it inhibits us from operating in every province and reaching all of the Afghan women and girls that could benefit from our services. It also makes our staff and facilities targets of the Taliban, other extremist elements, as well as the abusive families and husbands of our clients. However, the resiliency of our staff and clients is what drives the hard work we do every day throughout Afghanistan.
USAWC: What is the most effective way a woman can deal with violence or abuse by her family?
MN: Dealing with domestic abuse is an extremely personal experience, so each woman grappling with abuse is tasked with doing what is in her best interests and meets her immediate and long-term needs. The first step is to seek immediate safety, and then procure long-term safety and growth opportunities.
USAWC: What are the biggest barriers preventing women from reporting gender-based violence?
MN: A whole host of barriers inhibit women from reporting gender-based violence. Cultural attitudes breed acceptance of the practice, as well as shame in and stigmatization of the victims. Women are often reluctant to leave abusive situations because of their children and the false belief that keeping the family together is in the best interests of the child(ren). However, violence is a learned behavior, and children that grow up in an abusive home are far more likely to continue the cycle of violence.
Often times, when women run away from abusive spouses and families to police, they are often thrown in jail, where they are subject to increased sexual harassment and violence. Misinterpretation of the law deeming the act of running away a “moral crime” often leads to these women being incarcerated more long-term, including with their children. In addition, corruption of police and local authorities frequently leads to women being returned to their abusive situations, where they may be subject to retribution and further violence.
Logistical issues are also a challenge, as a woman in need may not always be in close proximity to a shelter and other basic services. While WAW operates in 14 provinces, financial and security limitations prevent us from being every location in which there are women and children requiring our aid.
Lastly, lack of education and economic opportunities leave women vulnerable to violence and without recourse to remove themselves from an abusive home and improve their situation.
USAWC: How can concerned individuals in Afghanistan and internationally work to stop violence against women in Afghanistan?
MN: Afghans and internationals alike must continue to elevate the issue in public discourse and highlight the scope and consequences of gender-based violence in Afghanistan. Americans and activists within the states of the NATO-coalition of forces currently operating in Afghanistan should continue to clearly draw the link between the fact that domestic violence leads to violent societies. By working to eliminate violence against women in Afghanistan, the state will become more stable; and the security of Afghanistan is in the national security interests of the coalition member countries.
Concerned internationals and Afghans must keep working hard to shift cultural attitudes and social norms about gender roles and gender-based violence, and to help garner widespread acceptance that women’s rights are human rights. This work will involve engagement with the Afghan government, imams, tribal leaders, community activists, and, most importantly, both men and women. In addition, all must work to empower Afghan women and girls, so that they have education, economic, political, and social opportunities that can break the cycles of systemic violence.
USAWC: Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about eliminating gender-based violence or WAW’s work in Afghanistan?
MN: Eliminating gender-based violence in a moral, political, economic and security imperative for the future of Afghanistan. However, the fight to end the patriarchal norms of Afghan society will take a substantial amount of time and hard work. In the interim, WAW will continue to be the largest women’s rights and shelter-providing organization within Afghanistan, and will stand by the side of all women and children to protect and empower them.