Child Protection…

According to a 2009 Child Protection Report:

Child Labour (working children 7-14):  24%

Child Marriage (girls married under 18):  43%

Street children in Kabul:  37,000

Children living in institutions:  8,000

Children associated with armed groups & armed forces demobilized from 2003 to 2005: 7,444

The Children’s Act in Afghanistan may not yet be firmly in place, but it’s being developed by some key players here in Afghanistan. With any development, it takes time, but step by step we’ll see changes in Afghanistan that will protect children for generations to come. This is a cutting edge time to be in Afghanistan, to see new procedures being established, better practices and higher standards of care.

But this is a journey, and though it can be very exciting and encouraging, there are times where you feel like you are hitting a brick wall and the discouragement sets in. But as a local and international community, we press on… because we know change will come.

It’s through some very difficult cases like the reintegration of deported unaccompanied Afghan children, or a baby at risk of death and needing to be adopted, that good practices and procedures can be established. Sometimes mistakes are made along the way, but everyone is learning and sometimes by making the mistakes, a more water tight procedure can be put in place. I’ve been so impressed by the  local and international organisations, and local Govt. bodies dedicated to the protection and well being of Afghanistan’s children, things will change… it may be slow… but it will come.

Recently, a difficult case of deported unaccompanied children brought with it much attention. Over the years, hundreds of unaccompanied Afghan children deported back to Afghanistan from both neighbouring countries and much further away, have been reintegrated to relatives in a country that was for many no doubt a whole new world. This more recent case challenged an unchallenged system, and changes were made, where the children’s protection was the primary focus, both present and future. Through this case new procedures have been set that with support of Government and civil society means children will be safely reintegrated to families that have first been assessed, and where good follow up is in place, ensuring children are well looked after, in school and with good future prospects – this is fantastic progress.

Adoption and fostering is a whole new domain for Afghanistan, but as in the deportation case, new frontiers are being crossed and the possibilities and hope for the neediest of children are opening up…

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Spring in Kabul…

A few weeks ago our day guard who loves to do gardening also, approached me and asked if he could buy 10 more rose bushes for the garden. Of course I agreed… Kabul would not be the same without roses, and this week our first rose bloomed…

I only arrived in September so I missed the Spring last year, but I have to say, I think it will be my favourite season here in Afghanistan. Our vine is growing and our guard, come gardener, has been proudly pointing out the beginning signs of grapes, “Look, grape juice”…

The sun is shining, kids are playing cricket in the street (even some security guards – I won’t mention where) and there’s nothing like driving through the city, watching the every-day life while listening to Afghan music through the radio, or from one of the cassettes the boys are selling in the street, exchangeable through the car window at discount rate.

I’ve had some guests from Cambodia this week and it’s been so nice to get out and about to see some sites. The other day we were at Quargha Lake, where many of the Afghan families go during the summer, just a half hour ride out of Kabul. Then yesterday we went to see the ruins of the Royal Palace of Darulaman, built in the 1920s, in grand European style, but destroyed by war. I imagine it was absolutely beautiful in its day… I felt quite sad, a reminder of the damage war inflicts on a country. I would have loved to have seen Kabul in the 60s…

I’m struck by the beauty of Afghanistan, but also know that for so many Afghans, life is brutally hard. So it’s no surprise that I would feel frustrated when I hear of the extravagant spending and what seems like ‘money thrown at Afghanistan’ but not hitting the right places… I’m conflicted… There is so much good work happening here, but at the same time there seems to be so much unnecessary spending of money that if spent wisely could benefit a great many Afghans.

This week I met several female business entrepreneurs who told me that the biggest challenge to Afghan women becoming business women was that they couldn’t by law own property, which meant they couldn’t access loans. “Finance is the biggest need”… there you go, that’s one great option to explore for someone who wants to make a good investment in this country…
Well, back to work, I have an assignment due… I’ll write again soon…

An Afghan moment – A Life Time Memory…

Last night a little baby boy was born… the mother named him Ashmatullah which means ‘Powerful one…nobody’s servant’… Both mother and child are doing very well… The young mother has been through so much and to see her now, beaming over this beautiful new born baby wrapped up in a hand woven blanket, is a beautiful sight…

My goal was to see the baby and congratulate the mother, but before that moment there were many other congratulations to make, because this baby boy now had many aunties ‘Bibi’ and brothers and sisters to dote over him… “Tabrik”…”congratulations”. Everyone was congratulating each other, small children were putting their hand in mine telling me “Tabrik bibi”…

I went down to the basement where the music was playing loudly and saw several of the girls using the exercise bikes – our newly furnished gym. There was a lot to celebrate that morning so as I walked down the stairs it was hard not to move a little to the music, which was met with some excitement from the young girls… Then, unexpectedly, one of them started to dance… and soon enough a dance party broke out in the basement with more girls taking to the dance floor, clapping to the music as one by one they took turns to dance.

The boys stayed upstairs, eating their breakfast…clearly ignoring us (which was a good thing!) Some of the women have not danced since the Taliban took over…

It was such a powerful moment and one which will stay with me forever… I can’t describe it… a perfect moment…

Imagine…

My mum reminded me the other day that I haven’t written on the blog since November, and she’s right, but it’s not because I’ve forgotten or have been too busy, it’s because sometimes it’s too hard to know how to put on paper what I’m thinking and feeling inside about the things I hear and see around me. And there’s always a certain fear that I might write too much… The subject of the blog has always been known… but how to start…

Imagine…

All over Afghanistan there are women living in absolute fear. They’ve brought shame on their family and for that they will have to die so that honor can be restored.

Imagine a young woman who has had to marry a man her family has promised her to, perhaps a relative, perhaps a man who’s owed money. She marries him but does not love him. But then she meets another man and falls in love. They decide to run away together.  She gets caught and is forced to return, her fate is sealed. Even if her family were to accept her, society will not…

Imagine the young teenager girl, begging door to door, and unknowingly knocks on a door where a group of men await her. Lured inside she is gang raped. She falls pregnant. If her uncles find out she will be killed, because who’s to say she didn’t incite the violence – atleast that’s what the neighbors might think. And so she runs away, and hopes to find someone that might help her. Or she stays, knowing that her life and the life of the unborn child will soon be taken…

Imagine a young woman who is raped by a stranger who has broken in to her home. Because of fear of shame for her family, she runs away with him and marries him. He takes her home where he already has a wife and multiple children. She becomes a victim of constant abuse at their hands, but cannot go home… it’s too late…

Imagine a woman who asks to be put in prison rather than return to her family, because it’s the only place she can feel safe…

These are the silenced voices of many Afghan women.  

We want to help… We want to be heroes and rush in and save her… But this isn’t a fairytale with the guaranteed happy ending. This is Afghanistan.  Their culture is not our own, the shame and honor so deeply ingrained in family and community life is foreign to us. But do we then turn our back and say we cannot help? No… but it’s clear that for each woman reaching out that crosses our path, wisdom will have to be our guide… Some we will be able to help, others not, and that’s something we will have to live with…

Hagar Afghanistan Celebrate International Children’s Day…

For three days, children all over Afghanistan were celebrated. Events were organized by different organizations in Kabul, including games, other fun activities and ofcourse ‘snacks’…

Hagar’s children were invited to the Mobile Mini Circus for Children (MMCC) for a big party on Saturday afternoon. There was acrobatics, dramas lots of games and a big lunch for all the children to enjoy. Children from the local community and other organizations were invited also so there was a big crowd.  Both Hagar children and the staff attended the event and had lots of fun. Some of the teachers from MMCC will soon come to the Shelter to do art projects, so everyone is looking forward to that.

On Saturday, the Hagar Office invited the women and children to a garden party. When it was mentioned to the boys that there was going to be football they were so excited and told staff they had been praying for this! A colleague took some goal posts from home and as soon as the boys arrived they got straight into a game of football.  The final score was 2:2 There will have to be a rematch at a later date!

The girls and little kids played on the swings and also had a go with the skipping ropes. One little boy handed the skipping rope to the Country Rep and told her “Play”…  So she did 30 jumps with the skipping rope and nearly fainted.  One woman from the Shelter and staff member, also had a go, and surprised us all! I think the new record is 40… A colleague has told us his brother can do 100. We accept this challenge…

It also happened to be the birthday of our day guard, so we had cake and biscuits to celebrate. One of the young girls took us by surprise by singing Happy Birthday in English!

It was a fun day and we will have to do it again some time soon. But with the snow coming later this week, it will probably be a different kind of party!!

Unpredictable…

One thing that can be said of life in Afghanistan, it’s certainly not boring! But how can I describe it? Exciting? No, that’s not the word… I’m not sure. But every day is far from predictable.

Last night there was another earthquake, the second one in 7 days but somewhat milder. Still the feelings were the same… the first few seconds you continue to lie in bed, verging on deep sleep…but are rudely awoken by continued rumbling and shaking of the room. Then you shoot out of bed and if you’ve seen the series ‘LIFE’, stand under a doorway until the shaking stops, while your cats look up at you from their comfy position on your bed, wondering what an earth you’re doing. Then it’s back to bed to continue your sleep…

With the daily demonstrations in town, the terrible attack on the guesthouse and the rockets fired at the Serena hotel… it’s been a very full on week, leaving many apprehensive of the coming week(s). With restricted movement, many more hours are spent in the office and the work continues… somewhat more somberly, with constant thoughts of those who have suffered because of this week’s events.

The Hagar Shelter has a growing number of clients, both women and children, receiving care and support. Some will be with us for a short time, others will need more longer term care. The staff are also committed to going on outreach in the local community, frequenting the local bazaars where many street children and women are found begging or looking for something recyclable in the rubbish heaps lining the street. They were telling me this week about two little girls they’d met aged 10 and 8, wearing little and walking barefoot. While talking with them informally, the girls seemed very stressed. They told staff that they had to raise 150 Afs each day ($3) and give to ‘the woman’ or they would be punished. Asked about their parents, the girls said they had not seen them for a very long time. On another occasion, staff met a very young boy. He had just come out of a public toilet and was visibly distressed and shaken up, covered in dirt. He seemed very afraid when the staff approached him and asked if he was ok. He didn’t answer but ran away in the opposite direction. Staff feared he might have just been abused.

This week I heard the story of a woman raped in her own home by a stranger and because of the shame felt, ended up marrying the perpetrator, only to live a life of misery and constant physical and psychological abuse, from a man who already had one wife and 10 children. This issue of honor and shame is difficult to comprehend, but it shapes the Afghan culture.

I once heard a leadership speaker saying “what you can’t stand, will help you understand what you’re called to do”… Some wise words… When I went to Cambodia in 2002, I met a woman in a village who had just given up twin baby boys to an orphanage, because she didn’t have the means to care for them. That made me angry and when I asked the question of ‘who is doing something to help these women so they don’t have to give up their children?’…I heard about Hagar. I got involved in their programs focusing on economic empowerment… and I’ve been with them ever since. Now, here in Afghanistan, I’m asking similar questions and hoping that Hagar can be part of the Afghan story in supporting the women and children who suffer such great injustices.

My chimney has just been swept and finally the diesel heater is at work, warming up the room… I shall make another cup of tea, and settle down to a DVD. We’ll see what the rest of this weekend brings… hopefully not too many surprises…

This is Hagar…

I’ve been told that ‘this is not cold’ but as far as I’m concerned, winter is definitely already well on its way! The mornings are crisp and the early evenings remind me of England in November… with the exception of clear blue skies and sunshine! It’s time for buying thick Iranian blankets for beds and wood burners for inside the rooms. After 6 years of constant heat in Cambodia, this is quite refreshing… though I wonder if I will adapt in time to face the below freezing temperatures that are on their way.

This morning as I left the house, two very young girls, street girls, walked past the car… their pretty red dresses covered in dirt and their hair matted. They must have been about 5 or 6 years old, wearing no shoes and confidently striding down the dusty street with rice sack over their shoulders. I met them the other evening, in the same red dresses, while walking home from friends, accompanied by the day watchman… they were asking for money and when the watchman told them to go, one hit my arm before quickly walking on. These are just little girls but at the same time they’re much older, tough and determined…
I just bought two big blankets for myself… how will those little girls keep warm… what am I going to do about it?! Something…
The bombing this week in Kabul left 12 dead and 87 injured… all civilians. A colleague told me of one woman’s radio interview… a mother of 5 children, 4 daughters and 1 son. Her husband was the sole provider for the family and was killed in the blast. Now she has no one to provide for her and is unable to work… “how are we going to survive”… How devastating to lose a father, husband and security all in one moment. Her story is shared by many… I wonder how many mothers were made widows this week…
These are the women and the children of Afghanistan that need to find hope again, to have their cries heard and for someone to respond. This is Hagar…

My desk transformed in to a lunch time table today, and we all sat together eating meat balls and nan bread with what seems to be a never ending supply of green tea… I’m glad to be here and am part of a wonderful team, Afghans whose paths I am privileged to be crossing. It’s great to see what Hagar is getting involved in, the vision is here and the excitement is growing

A kite flying lesson…

IMGP5836_1From the rooftop of my Afghan friend’s home, we had a good view of Kabul and the many flat rooftops, the mountains set in the background and colorful kites gliding through the air as far as the eye could see.

If you’ve ever read or seen the Kite Runner you’ll remember the day of kite flying and the competition of cutting your competitors’ kite strings.  We successfully cut two before being chased and cut by someone we’ll never know from a far away rooftop.  I asked about the cut kite and the response was ‘it doesn’t matter what happens to it, it has no honour!’ I smiled and wondered who would catch it as it fell. It would live to see another day.

Some of the kids looked so professional, they seemed to have all the right moves and were extremely focused on the game.  I don’t think they were very impressed by my ‘skills’… I shall have to practice some more.  You can buy kites here for 5 Afs to 250 Afs.   With weekends and Eid, they must get through so many kites! Now that would make a good social enterprise…IMGP5806_1

It’s Small Eid, the 3 day celebration post Ramadan where people dress up in their sparkly clothes and visit each other, bless one another and eat good food! The rule is that Day 1 is for your family. You meet with your own parents first, who normally live in the same compound as you, and then you aren’t allowed to visit or receive others until you’ve visited your in-laws.  Day 2 is for visits to other relations and friends and also a time to receive guests so at least one relative needs to remain home in case someone drops by.  With large families living in the same compound, visitor shifts are somewhat smooth.  Visits can last between 10 mins and 30 mins, unless invited specifically for lunch or dinner.  A group of young people visited my friend’s home yesterday and were there for all of 2 minutes, just enough time to drink a glass of green tea and to say ‘May God grant all your prayers prayed while fasting’ or simply ‘Happy Eid’… ‘Eid Mobarak’… I perfected this bit of Dari the day before.

As a visitor you always bring some cake, sweets or nuts, placed subtly on the seat beside you so as not to draw attention to yourself. You drink enormous amounts of green tea and eat some wonderful food. Before you leave you need to remember to give the smaller kids some money, anything from between 10 and 50 Afs.  The little girl I met had asked her dad ten times already that day how much money she had collected.  ‘Dad’ also becomes advisor on what the children can buy after Eid.  For girls it’s dollies and for the boys… you’ve guessed it…kites!

I visited two families during Eid and had a wonderful time with them.  What a privilege to be able to share in what is a very special celebration for the Afghan people, learning a little more about this fascinating culture.   As the sun came down, more sparkly clothes appeared as people got ready to visit other friends.    Driving home under the light of the street carts selling all sorts of fruits and cakes, everything seemed alive and exciting.  As my friend reminded me earlier in the day as we discussed the differences between a collective and individualistic society, no matter the difficult times people face, all around the world people take the opportunity to celebrate together, and as far as kite flying is concerned, well time will always be made for that!

Afghan Childhood…

19th September 2009

“Significant in the childhood of Afghans is the lack of adolescence… life in Afghanistan is too short and resources too scarce to allow such a luxury.”   Shon Campbell, Lost Chances – the changing situation of children in Afghanistan, 1999-2000

Driving through the streets of Kabul is always an interesting journey, watching the everyday life of the Afghans through a small window, men selling fruit and vegetables from their carts in the road, women with or without their burkas quietly walking past, school children in their smart uniforms heading to and from school and then of course there’s the traffic….

While we were looking out at the goings on around us, people were looking in at us, intrigued by this minivan of foreigners in Afghan attire, heading out of town.  One little American boy was telling us all about his kite flying experience in the US and now in Kabul, while his 4 year old brother slowly told us about his hope of catching tadpoles at the place where we were headed.  It’s always nice to hear children chatting away, and these little boys had our full attention.   As I listened to them chatting away about ‘things that children like to do’, I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought about the children outside the van, the ones coming up to the window in the busy Kabul streets and asking for money, or the children walking past, carrying heavy loads on their shoulders… that would make an interesting conversation.

I read the other day that by the end of the 90s, 12 out of 20 boys and just one in 20 girls of schooling age were going to school. With the Taliban many qualified teachers fled and schooling for girls and female teachers were banned.  Since 2002 the situation has changed dramatically with many in school, even in the villages. 

Driving up to the village, we passed a school just as the morning session ended and there were so many school girls coming out of the gate.  It was a beautiful sight.  The further we drove the more rural it became, with dusty uneven roads and stunning landscape.  The area we went to was particularly green and there was a little stream where we sat for a picnic while the kids got completely soaked looking for tadpoles…  Going for a walk along the stream we met a little old man with a heavy load on his back, heading to town to sell.  He was so happy to chat with us and asked us to come for a cup of tea, which would have been back up the hill for him… we of course thanked him and said we’d let him get to market and perhaps another time, he was full of smiles and chatter and continued on his way.  Further up the track we met some little boys, with a little home-made kite.  They kept asking if we had a pen… I wish I had, I’d have gladly given it.  We met a lot of children as we walked, brothers minding the goats, young siblings carrying branches of eucalyptus leaves up to their home, kids knocking down walnuts from the trees, collecting for food and for market. Most were shy, but intrigued…. following us as we walked, while others kept wanting to feed us walnuts!

There’s no schooling for these kids. Perhaps when they reach 10 or 11 they will be big enough to walk down to the village for school.  It’s a strange paradox. Surrounded by beauty, fresh air and family, you can’t imagine a more wonderful place to live. But at the same time, life is hard, everyone has to work hard to support the family, village girls are often married off by the time they’re 14 and boys are considered adults by the time they reach14, expected to start providing for and protecting the family. 

For now though, these kids are kids.  They still have time to play together, to climb the trees and to fly their kites…

A Better Afghanistan…

9th September 2009

Two civilians died yesterday morning and six were injured in a suicide bombing that hit Nato vehicles at the Afghan Airport… hearing the helicopters flying over head in the early hours of this morning and seeing the trail of armed police vehicles driving by today while we sat in the car waiting to turn into the main road, it started to hit home… this is Afghanistan… the many years of unrest and war enduring.

With the news of yesterdays attack, one Afghan woman decided to tell me a story not uncommon to many Afghan families. As a very young girl when the Soviets invaded the country, her family escaped to the north, returning years later when the Taliban were in place.  Many of those who left Kabul as children returned with a husband and children of their own.  Unable to support a life under the Taliban, some men left for Iran or Pakistan, leaving behind their wives and children in Kabul. For those who stayed, as this one mother did, life was very hard.  There was no employment available outside of the home for women, and some days there was no food for the family.  Women wove mats in the day and tailored by night, making enough to feed the family.  If a woman needed to go out to buy food she would wear the burka (chadori) as did all women at that time. 

For this one Afghan woman, her husband eventually returned from Iran and took her and the kids to Pakistan, where like many others, they lived in refugee camps and tried to survive as best they could with little hope of a better Afghanistan.

Once Karzai was placed in power, many returned to Kabul, as did this Afghan family. But the sense of unrest and insecurity remained.  For the following few years women continued to wear the burka when out, and for those who didn’t, they risked acid being thrown in to their faces by Taliban supporters.  And no-one knew if the Taliban would soon return and who would dare risk an uncertain fate for being ‘unfaithful’.  To this day, this fear remains and burkas can still be seen.

With the current unrest, sleepless nights are had by many. Questions surrounding the future of the family, of what they’d do if the past returned, increasingly encroach on their sleep.

My impatience and frustration with slow internet and problems with the computer, are suddenly made obsolete when I listen to the Afghan people share about their lives.  One thing striking is their warmness, kindness and openness.  The big discussion at the moment is the upcoming Eid – The 3 day Afghan holiday after Ramadan, where families visit each other and eat and share together.  I already have two invitations and a promise of a kite flying lesson!  These days we see many children in the streets flying their home made kites. 

I’m sitting in the rose garden, listening to Hayley Westenra on my MP3 player… looking up at the sky, at the kites breezing by, and dreaming of another Afghanistan, where peace and security are experienced by all.