Afghanistan: women fight for right to grow trees

Afghanistan’s eastern Zabul province is in the news at the moment because a US Chinook helicopter just crashed there, killing eight soldiers and wounding 14. The Taliban, as usual, claimed it was brought down by one of their missiles, and the US, as usual, denies it. (IHT, Feb. 18) But this Feb. 19 story from Pakistan’s The News shows the kind of courage needed by Zabul’s women to stand up for simple dignity against a local regime of Islamist tyranny five years and counting after “Operation Enduring Freedom”:

Afghan women grow trees to lift their own lives
QALAT, Afghanistan — Row upon row of saplings stand in the sun in the capital of Afghanistan’s drought-hit Zabul province where war and poverty have left ancient underground irrigation channels dry and the hills bare.

These young plants have been weeded and watered and brought to life in this tough terrain by some of the poorest women of Qalat who are reaching for more in a harsh world —- at risk to their personal safety.

Almonds and apricots, cedar and cypress, pine and pistachio: a lot rides on these 203,720 saplings. The 90 women who raise them are paid with 61 kilogrammes of oil, wheat, pulses and salt a month as a part of a “food for work” programme on which many Qalat families depend.

Their labour also earns them lessons in reading and writing, nutrition and health care—for some the first schooling in their lives. When the saplings are ready for planting, half will go to adopt-a-tree and other projects to re-green this barren-looking land, perhaps helping to re-establish the almond orchards that are the pride of Zabul.

The rest will go to the women to seed small businesses selling the trees or their harvest, or just to provide their families with fruit and nuts. Inside a new building under the nursery’s scraggly pines, row upon row of women sit on the floor, facing a teacher.

Many have pulled their blue Burqas back over their faces because there are visitors. Hands and feet are red with henna; children fidget as their mothers recite phrases written on the board. It has been a struggle to get these women here. Zabul, like all of southern Afghanistan, is deeply conservative and influenced by the Taliban religious movement, whose insurgency keeps the nation unstable.

“Women of child-bearing age are not allowed to go outside the home, only very old women and widows can have some activity,” says the province’s top women’s affairs official, Gulnar Rashidi.

“If men are willing to let women have social activity, other men criticise them,” Rashidi says. When the nursery was set up in June 2005, anonymous letters were sent to mosques warning “if they let women go to the centre, we will burn their houses, we will not let them live in our villages,” Rashidi says.

Rashidi has also been threatened: she has bodyguards and her husband has implored her to not travel with their two children. Her counterpart in Kandahar province was assassinated in September. There was also an attempt to allow only men to take part in the nursery. Rashidi fought hard—and won.

But even convincing women of the benefits of literacy is challenging in a province where the first girls’ school is still at the planning stage. “The women of Zabul are completely illiterate—the educated ones come from other provinces,” says Rashidi, a medical doctor from the capital, Kabul.

“The women don’t know the uses and benefits of studying because they couldn’t know.” The lure was the chance of a job in an office to earn a bit of cash, she says. Project coordinator Atiqullah Baramzai points to the road outside the compound where a suicide blast about four months ago shattered newly installed windows and doors.

“The women are very brave,” he says, blaming the attack on the Taliban. “Sometimes we get threats in the mosque or from men on motorbikes who ride past. We feel worried. If the door opens, we worry,” says Nasreen, who wears a large black shawl.

Nasreen supervises 80 home-based nurseries run by women who cannot leave their houses because they must care for their children—or because their husbands will not allow them.

“People warn me, they threaten me, but I still come. Everybody knows the problems but they are coming to earn something and have a better future,” she says.

But 100 women have dropped out because of the insecurity. There are other problems: water is in short supply because traditional underground irrigation systems fell into ruin during the past wars and there is little rain or snow to feed them. New wells have not been completed.

And as the project—part of the UN-backed Green Afghanistan Initiative (GAIN) — comes into fruition with the first trees ready for planting next month, its funding dries up in June.

See our last posts on Afghanistan and the status of women.