That is how Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women (WAW), described the hard-won gains for women’s rights in Afghanistan. WAW is at the forefront of advocacy for Afghan women. Its programs in Afghanistan and New York combat domestic violence, forced marriage, and other violations of women’s human rights.
When Viswanath first learned about what was happening to Afghan women under the Taliban rule, she wanted to do something to help. With her background in women’s rights, she was shocked that there weren’t any existing organizations in New York that were working on the issue, In 2000 she began to search for a way to start her own.She spent a lot of time with the Afghan community in Queens, NY, just listening to what women there had to say. “I didn’t want to do anything without our feet firmly planted in the community,” she said.
Viswanath and WAW began to organize a conference on women in Afghanistan for the fall of 2001. When 9/11 happened, that conference suddenly was at the center of media attention. In 2001, everyone wanted to know about Afghan women, but over time, Viswanath said, the media’s focus has drifted away. Making sure the world doesn’t write off Afghan women is at the core of the advocacy work of WAW.
The programs that WAW runs in Afghanistan are based on what they learned from the Afghan community in New York. “The model we use to work on the cases in Afghanistan is very similar to what we use in the Queens community,” Viswanath said, and noted that WAW’s work in New York was recently the topic of a New York Times article.
At the heart of the organization are the Family Guidance Centers, offices staffed by lawyers and case workers who can help women who report violations of their human rights. The first step in addressing these problems is frequently a “jirga”, a meeting of everyone involved in the situation, anyone who the women thinks would it be helpful to bring together. If, for example, the woman’s husband signs something in front of these people he respects (like the imam) and agrees to not abuse her, it can be very effective.
However, for some women, those strategies aren’t possible, and in every city where WAW has an Family Guidance Center, they also have a women’s shelter in a hidden location. Currently, WAW runs 5 shelters in Afghanistan, and is set to expand to 8 this year. However, these shelters, and those run by other NGOs, have come under attack from conservative elements in the Afghan government, which accuse the organizations of mismanagment and immorality. There is currently a law under debate that would have the government take over the shelters, and force women to go in front of an all-male panel of judges to prove their abuse before they are allowed to go to a shelter.
Viswanath was hopeful that the government would back down, but she urged audience members to sign petitions in support of the women’s shelters. The takeover, she argued, would be the first step in dismantling all of protections women have won in the last ten years. Viswanath was also worried about the long-term prospects for women’s rights. She warned that, if the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the situation for women in the country will return to what it was before 9/11.
“We just know that, if the foreign troops leave, we will not be able to do our work….We operate very much like locals, so we will be the last ones to leave. But we will have to leave…[without the] security afforded to us by the foreign presence.” Nonetheless, Viswanath was clear that women’s rights aren’t only a western idea. All human beings know their rights, she said, and it is their bravery in fighting for those rights that inspires the work the WAW does.
The Yale Afghanistan Forum thanks Sunita Viswanath, and our co-sponsors, the Yale Women’s Center, the Asian American Cultural Center, Reach Out Yale, the International Students Organization, the Muslim Students Association and the South Asian Studies Council.