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FemAid report on Afghanistan and Pakistan,March-April 2005

Back to the refugee camp

In previous reports the camp where RAWA and FemAid have been particularly active has been described in great detail. Here, I would like to say that the refugee question is still of vital importance. Nancy Hatch Dupree, the grande (and merveilleuse) dame of Afghan studies whom I met in Peshawar informed me there were still 1.8 million refugees in the area and strongly deplored UNHCR ‘s policy of pushing them out of the country at full speed. She knows- what I had discovered myself, that many such returnees have been shivering in makeshift tents for two and a half-years in Kabul simply because there is nowhere for them to go.
Nevertheless, in « our » camp, the atmosphere has definitely changed. People are on the move, they no longer truly relate to this uniquely experimental settlement which has become what all camps set out to be : temporary shelters for those waiting to go back to their frequently devastated homes. Many of those waiting have been doing all their brief lives.…
I had come here to put in place an educational programme for untrained and uneducated birth-attendants. The fact that Afghanistan holds the worlds record in maternal mortality has made this FemAid’s top priority from 2005 onwards. For a variety of logistical reasons, we decided to launch the first programme in the refugee camp, where women need to develop skills to prepare their return to Afghanistan. Although there are a few doyas, recognized midwives in every community, women help each other to give birth, using their experience as a guideline. This is not the first time we have attempted this: in 2003, FemAid was involved in putting on one such project in RAWA’s dispensary in Quetta, now closed.
Whereas it is naturally impossible to imagine training according to Western standards, it is possible to improve conditions through a series of simple measures and basic education in hygiene and anatomy, which are totally lacking here. After all, one hundred and sixty years ago the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss made a landmark discovery when he proved that babies were saved when doctors attending birthing mothers simply washed their hands … We are here light years away from any such conceptions, because traditional notions of impurity, decency and honour need to be considered and woven into this project. I conducted research with these women and medical staff in order to work on the anthropological input lacking in existing programmes.
The report of this particular research will be published at a later date, but in the meantime, I discovered that most women (especially those living in urbanized conditions) at their first pregnancy did not know where the baby would emerge from their bodies. None knew anything at all about sex on their wedding night. One woman reported that despite giving birth in hospital she did not know what was happening « I was distraught with fear, I did not understand what was going on, I just wanted to be rid of the pain ; I thought the doctor was operating in my crotch ». Why the doctor had n’t explained anything remains to be seen. For many, the connexion between sex and pregnancy is not clear and all think that they are personally responsible for bringing girls into the world and therefore inviting punishment from their males. A mother of seven said « I still don’t know where exactly the baby sits in my stomach when I’m expecting”. Another mother of five can’t figure out why a pregnant belly was high in the beginning and then low at the end. When asked why they thought maternal and infant mortality was so catastrophic in their country, amongst many reasons most blamed malnutrition for women and marital violence, nobody ever mentioning hygiene : « My sister’s baby had ribs broken because her husband hit her so much » reported one participant whilst others nodded, remembering similar tales….However, .I hope we will be able to recognize and include any positive aspects of traditional practices and remedies, as these can maintain confidence amongst women attending this course who will be able to find some kind of continuity amongst different ways of tackling the situations they are confronted with.

If this project takes off by weaving in such considerations in this way, it will be truly innovative.

RAWA will be responsible for recruiting the staff. If the Malalai Hospital in Rawalpindi has to be closed for lack of funds, it will shift to the camp, especially as the clinic, funded up to now by IMF, has been closed. Otherwise, they will provide a midwife and nurse to run this programme and we shall be working together on the contents of the course. We have agreed that these women afterwards have to promise to share some of the knowledge that they have acquired with their entourage, especially their daughters. The latter may be the hardest part to enforce, as it is “shameful” to speak about sex and childbirth to your own daughters, but it is certainly the most vital as far as the future of the women of their country is concerned.

FemAid projects for 2005

The birth-attendant-training programme henceforth will be our main priority. We are launching it for one year and hope to be able to train a maximum amount of women in two camps, which ideally could concern a few hundred women. The idea is to offer a full 3 months programme covering main issues linked to anatomy, pregnancy, ante and post- natal care, pain, as well as birth control. We plan to have a few sessions for men as well. This should be a forum for active discussion. At the end of the course, women will be given a small kit containing basic disinfectants and presented with some kind of diploma. In Peshawar I met with UNHCR and IMF and hope to get them on board as well. If this works out I should like to involve specialists from the West.

The Sitara Orphanage

RAWA has informed us that they now have a sponsor who is able to foot all the bills concerning the running of the Sitara orphanage.
However, we will continue to pay for educational and vocational programmes, especially as we have developed such a close link to the children. First of all there will be English classes and the setting up of a little library of English language books and films.
The sewing and carpentry classes have been a great success. As planned, the first five girls who returned to Afghanistan took their manual sewing-machine with them to their village, which will ensure them a livelihood. We are going to launch the same course in another RAWA orphanage in Peshawar.The other ten will go when each girls who has completed the course leaves to go home- something which may not happen immediately. In the meantime, they have been making ‘shalwar-kamiz’, the traditional tunic and trouser outfits for all the other children and staff in the orphanage and have also learn how to embroider. They henceforth take orders! The boys have made miniature pieces of furniture and are working on larger examples and all are enjoying their work..

Sponsorship of specific students

In Afghanistan, through RAWA, we are sponsoring four gifted teenage girls in order to help them with their studies. Their photos and stories of Najia, Feryal, Salima and Mashkan will be appearing on the site soon
In Pakistan,, we are also helping a particularly brilliant student to complete his ‘A’ level studies. Despite being a charity which makes helping women its priority, it is impossible to do so without working with the men they live with. In such an ultra-patriarchal society, it is far harder to change male mentalities..
We are continuing to sponsor three Christian girls in the Hatoon-e-Fatima School in Islamabad, as we have been doing for the past three and a half years because the Christian community is the poorest in Pakistan.

For the time being, we are dropping the Burns Unit project. It is impossible to even consider such an enormously ambitious project without firm and active commitment from a Pakistani women’s organization prepared to work hard at this. And for the time being, none has been forthcoming despite the urgency of the problem. We have met with prominent activist Shahnaz Bokhari in Islamabad and hope one day to be able to work with her.


Well, funds are somewhat low at this present time and, more than ever, we need your help and assistance to carry out these projects. We are commiting as far as our finances allow us and are not making promises we can’t keep. As you know, much of our money comes from individual dedicated donors and also sales of scarves and handicrafts- if interested, please contact us. We are now equipped to receive donations via Paypal- any donation can be sent with one click directly from our site.

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Tel: 33 6 10 30 71 05