...but everything has changed this week
An interview with Zarghona Rassa, the Chair of the British Afghan Women Society
In the middle of the Afghan catastrophe unfolding live in front of our eyes and affecting thousands of people of every age and sex — among the scenes of crowds fleeing in chaos, people falling from planes, and armed soldiers parading — as a perinatal psychiatrist and an advocate for the rights of women and children, my first thought went out to Afghan pregnant women, and their soon to be born children.
These incredibly vulnerable people, vulnerable even in the best of circumstances, are now once again exposed to the possibility of a new civil war and a ruler known for its past cruelty.
The last time the Taliban were in charge, they allowed women to deliver in compounds full of girls and babies, giving birth on a cloth over a dung heap, because it absorbs the blood, and using a polluted stream as a source of water.
Or simply they barred women going to hospitals, except for one establishment that had no running water or electricity, and only 45 beds for the whole of Kabul — a situation that was later partially reversed thanks to pressing from the International Red Cross.
Undoubtedly the health situation — across the board, but for women and children in particular — has greatly improved over the last 20 years since the end of the Taliban ruling. According to a 2015 World Health Organisation report on Afghanistan, the maternal mortality ratio has declined by 70% between 1990 and 2015 (from 1340 to 396 per 100 000 live births), and the under-5 mortality rate has decreased by 50% (from 181 to 91 deaths per 1000 live births).
Of course, these numbers are still incredibly high: the equivalent figures in the UK, for example, are 8–10 for maternal mortality ratio and 4–5 for under -5 mortality.
NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) in Afghanistan have trained over 4,000 community midwives, but they have been a target of terrorist attacks within the country even before the events of this week.
Nevertheless, there had been incredible progress, until now.
And now we are already seeing the first reports of women’s health clinics being shut down.
Zarghona Rassa is the Chair of the British Afghan Women Society (BAWS), a charity that was started to provide support to Afghan refugee women and children in the UK so that they could integrate into the British Society, but that has subsequently expanded its activities to help women and children in Afghanistan.
Born in Kandahar, Zarghona lived in Afghanistan until 1994, when she took asylum in the UK with her family. She has been travelling back and forth to Afghanistan since 2004, involved in humanitarian activity, organising the delivery of donated material (clothes, baby formulas, medical and obstetric equipment, stationery for schools) and supporting health and education initiatives for women and girls.
I started by asking her what was her perception of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
It is very difficult to get in touch with anybody at the moment in Afghanistan, but we know that women are too scared to go out. The country is in a lawless situation, and we are watching a humanitarian crisis unfolding in front of our eyes.
And we can only watch.
It is very difficult to understand what is happening at the higher government level. And there are no systems or procedures in place at present. At ground level, the Taliban may behave differently than what they have been telling the press.
There have been great improvements in health and education in Afghanistan in the last 20 years. What do you think will happen with the new regime?
During the last 20 years, women had become much more confident in Afghanistan.
[In the aforementioned interview in Times of India, Zarghona also said: We had female lawyers, 27% of parliament were women, as well as ministers and women journalists. It was inspirational for me to watch women journalists having strong opinions. We had many businesswomen too. Women could go out on their own and drive.]
But everything has changed this week.
What have your main activities been since you founded this charity?
We started as a small group of Afghan women in 1999, then we became a charity in 2001. We still do not have any paid staff, and only rely on volunteers.
We helped fundraising in the UK and supporting the transport of humanitarian material and deliveries to all areas of Afghanistan, and especially Kabul and Kandahar.
We also supported internally displaced people within Afghanistan, and in particular women and children.
[It is worth noticing that the United Nations Refugees Agency already said at the end of 2020 that there were almost 3 million internally displaced Afghans, because of ongoing fighting in most of the provinces. Nearly 400,000 have been forced from their homes since the beginning of 2021, with nearly 120,000 who have fled from rural areas and provincial towns to Kabul province. This was before the Taliban took over.]
We brought food, warm clothes, and blankets, to children who were freezing because of particularly cold winters.
[Here Zarghona is referring to episodes where freezing winters in Afghanistan were also in the international news: in 2012 (“the coldest winter in 15 years”), when 41 deaths from freezing, mostly children, were recorded in the three provinces of Kabul, Ghor and Badakhshan; and at the end of 2020, when, according to an appeal from the NGO, Save the Children, 300,000 children were at risk of facing illness and death from Afghanistan’s freezing winter conditions. Again, this was before the Taliban took over.]
And how can we help people in Afghanistan from the UK?
We are planning to support women and children in Afghanistan, by reaching out to local community leaders, when it will be possible.
And we also want to prepare for the arrival of Afghan refugees in the UK.
We are also reaching out to the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Refugee Council to offer our help and advice. In the past, we have offered cultural advice on how to facilitate the integration of Afghan people in the UK and worked with the Refugee Council.
We will also assist with emergency accommodation and translation.
We are preparing a specific fundraising programme to support our activities.
We talked for 10 minutes, this was the only time she had.
She is preparing to support the arrival of Afghan refugees in the UK.
And so are many other generous volunteers, hurrying to sort donations for Afghans escaping the Taliban.
We, at Inspire the Mind, will continue to provide a platform for these traumatised, vulnerable people, and to offer an opportunity to hear their voices and their stories.
As Dr Ayesha Ahmad says in her recent blog on Afghanistan on this platform:
“We cannot let the blood of Afghan women be in vain. Theirs is a story that needs to continue.” — DR AYESHA AHMAD
Header image source: British Afghan Women Society (BAWS)