Disaster Relief Efforts of Native Women's Organizations: The Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning Explains Why Women's Groups Are So Vital in Responding to the Litany of Recent Disasters in Afghanistan

By Yacoobi, Sakena | Conscience, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Disaster Relief Efforts of Native Women's Organizations: The Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning Explains Why Women's Groups Are So Vital in Responding to the Litany of Recent Disasters in Afghanistan


Yacoobi, Sakena, Conscience


Recent disasters around the globe including mudslides, earthquakes, the tsunami, hurricanes, war, famine, and epidemic disease like AIDS have mobilized extensive response efforts. These relief efforts have multiple goals: to reach as many people as possible, to mobilize efforts as quickly as possible, to meet the immediate survival needs of the affected population and to ensure, in the longer term, the reconstruction and full recovery of the affected area. However, international relief organizations face severe challenges in meeting the needs of diverse populations and promoting long-term rehabilitation in regions that were plagued with poverty even before the disaster. Additionally, the special needs of women and children are often not sufficiently addressed within the scope of massive relief efforts, making them more vulnerable to hardship in the wake of a disaster.

In 1995, I founded an Afghan women's organization to respond to the needs of Afghan refugee women and children following the disastrous war with the Soviet Union. Our education and medical services responded to the short-term needs of refugees and our various education and training programs helped them prepare to rebuild their lives. However, disaster continued to batter our nation. The rise of the Taliban resulted in a ban on education, health care and employment for women and girls. We helped many families who fled the country after the rise of this oppressive regime. We also began underground home schools for 3,000 girls in Afghanistan. The US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 brought more refugees and devastation. Most recently, the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan killed and further dislocated Afghan refugees as well as Pakistanis. After each disaster, the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) responded promptly with urgently needed, culturally relevant assistance to women and children focused on relieving their immediate suffering and helping them prepare to rebuild.

The AIL now employs some 400 people, most of whom are Afghan women. As women who have survived this series of catastrophes and strived to help other women victims, we are well-acquainted with the impact of human-made and natural disasters. Families are torn apart. People lose many or all of their loved ones. Women and children are plunged into poverty when male heads of households die and they have no other way to support themselves. Cities and villages become impoverished as massive numbers of homes and businesses are destroyed. People have nowhere to live, no heat, no electricity, no schools, no clinics, no sanitation, no food and no clean water. Deprivation leads to desperation and people are forced to migrate from their homes. They become separated from their communities, their extended family networks and what other sources of support that remained. In times of war, in addition to all of these other hardships, violence continues and insecurity is pervasive.

People are scared, unsafe, psychologically traumatized, depressed and stressed. They ask themselves, "What will happen to us next?" They do not laugh or smile. People become singularly focused on survival, which consumes all of their thoughts and energy. They sometimes turn to unethical behavior in order to survive. Values, culture, loyalties and any sense of community are often eroded and people can lose their capacity to feel and their sensitivity to others. Under these circumstances, women often become the victims of violence, which becomes a part of home life as well as community life. Women are abused by their spouses and families and are unsafe outside of their homes as well. Some women in Afghanistan have resorted to self-immolation as they become overwhelmed and can endure no more violence and hardship.

Within this context of violence, fear and suspicion, conservatism increases. Men and women embrace fundamentalist ideologies in the hope that a return to fundamental values will bring them some relief. …

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