Photo: Mary Akrami

Saving lives in Afghanistan

Aya Nader from ICAN interviewed Mary Akrami, an award winning women’s rights defender and director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre on the topics of violence and discrimination against women and the lives she has saved.

Is domestic violence a major problem in Afghanistan?

From my observations, domestic violence has increased. This could be influenced by extremist attitudes. People are becoming more violent. They are cutting off women’s ears and noses, and sometimes even killing them. Poor women are always victims, especially in areas where they do not have access to aid. They don’t have the power to stand up to men. The economic situation is not helpful either. When a man is jobless, he may take it out on women and children at home. Women who are able to escape violence want to find their own way and stand on their own feet.

What is the solution?

Education, education, education! Security, economy – and more education.

We have seen some progress in the cities where there’s more education available for girls, and more women are working. You can only provide education when there’s security; when people’s minds are not under the pressure of witnessing killing and fighting. We need peace. Then we can educate people and change their behaviour

You pushed for the Law of Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW law) in 2009. How has it been implemented?

The law is used on a daily basis in most cases, especially in the cities and safe-houses, but it is under threat. Women’s issues are political issues. Every day the law helps women to get legal aid when they need a divorce or when there is violence against them. The parliament has said that they do not approve of it, and they keep trying to amend it and to remove articles empowering women. They are fundamentalists; they do not accept women’s rights. Sometimes, when international organisations are involved, the government attempts to show that they support the women of Afghanistan through this law. We are trying to advocate for them, but it is difficult as we are challenging the government.

Photo: Mary Akrami

Can you describe a case which made good use of this law?

In 2012, 18 year-old Lal Bibi was abducted by a group of policemen who beat and raped her for five days. We succeeded in putting those powerful men in jail for 16 years. This was also the first case in Afghanistan to be open to the media.

Can you describe the safe-houses you run?

I opened the first shelter for women in Afghanistan. I did not want to die before I did something good. The houses are for women who have suffered domestic violence, and who have run away from their families. Some have babies; some have had their noses or ears cut off. Since I opened my shelter in 2002 in Kabul, more safe-houses have been opening. We now have more than 27 safe-houses supporting women around the country. We have a 24-hour service because women usually run away at night. In 2007, we trained police on how to deal with such cases, and how to treat the women appropriately and make referrals to a safe-house.

We have different facilities and activities inside the safe-houses. We have literacy and computer classes for those who didn’t go to school. There is psychological counselling, and basic skills training. We have a kindergarten for the women’s children. In 2013, we started a catering service: a small kitchen inside the safe-house, which we found was the best way for the women to earn money.

What other work are you proud of?

I was involved in advocating for and establishing a special court set up through the EVAW law. We also pioneered a special attorneys’ office for the elimination of violence against women.

The response when a woman is raped has changed somewhat. Normally, when a family knew that a daughter had been raped they would have killed her or the rapist, but some have come to realise that they have other methods to solve the issue. The rapist can be jailed instead. We also help women to obtain national ID cards, which they need in order to attend school or open bank accounts. Most women in Afghanistan do not have an ID. Men do not want their wives and daughters to have them.

In 2003, we were the first organization that began to educate people about women’s rights and about peace. The safe-house has helped a group of Pakistani women who didn’t even know they were in Afghanistan where they had been kept captive for years. They had been locked up and were in a very bad situation until one of them ran away and involved us. We got the man responsible arrested and jailed, and we provided the women with legal support, shelter and related services. They went home after five months. It was the first time in Afghan history that the perpetrators were sent to prison. This was due to the implementation of the anti-trafficking law.

More than 4,700 cases during the last 13 years have come under our care. They are usually dangerous. During one case, extremist men tried to stop our car from getting to the court. Three times a year I move to a different area because my life and my family’s lives are in danger.

Can you tell us about the work you do to empower women economically?

We help women find jobs. About seven months ago, we established the Boost Restaurant, the first restaurant fully run by women who had been taken in by safe-houses and escaped domestic violence. When I see these women enjoying their activities I feel proud. I was joking with one woman. I said now you have a salary and you can get married, and she replied, ‘Why should I get married now that I have the right to count my money by myself?’ One woman told us she had never held a whole thousand rupees in her hand until she lived in one of our refuges. Today she works at the restaurant and has earned 80 thousand rupees. Now 22 women are working and they all have their own bank accounts.

Also the restaurant is an opportunity for families whose women never have the chance to go out for lunch or dinner. Most restaurants are run by men, so poor women must cover their faces, but now it’s a fun activity for them. It is a positive change when men go to a restaurant run by women.

The greatest sense of achievement comes from seeing how happy the women are.


This post was published on ICAN and has been reproduced with permission.