April 7th, 2010
05:45 PM ET

Afghan women: Don't exclude our men

This post also appears in the AM Fix, American Morning's blog

In a place where women have few rights, it seems improbable women would plead for men's advancement too. But, it's happening in Afghanistan.

Not for the reasons you might think, but because many Afghan women realize without the support of fathers, brothers and uncles, they will remain second-class citizens.

For years, the United States has developed and funded special "women's only" programs to help women start their own small businesses.

And while those efforts have been greatly appreciated, some global women's groups wonder if these programs are as effective as they could be when it comes to achieving equality in a patriarchal society.

More disturbingly, some other women's groups say these efforts, if not done well, may actually endanger women.

"Women are put at greater risk of violence when they must return home to frustrated, unemployed husbands who don't understand why their wives are getting training and credit and they are not," says Ritu Sharma, president of Women Thrive Worldwide.

It's time, says Sharma, to look at helping Afghan women in a more inclusive way – and that means including brothers and husbands – as well as sisters and wives.

"Gender is about looking at the different roles ... that men and women have in their families ... and then designing projects that meet everyone's needs."

For example, instead of targeting only the woman in an Afghan family for, let's say, a "micro-loan," or a small loan, to start a family business, it might be wise to include her husband. In today's Afghanistan, the traditional family unit is all-important, and, like it or not, the husband is still the head of the family. He's not used to seeing his wife make decisions, let alone seeing her run her own business. But, if he is on-board with his wife's project, it might mean a gradual acceptance of his wife's new role in the family.

World Vision International, an organization committed to community development around the world, says "inclusiveness" works.

It's launched a project in Afghanistan, funded by the United States, to train midwives to curb the staggering infant mortality rate in the country.

Instead of concentrating only on training women to care for pregnant mothers, World Vision works hard to include their male relatives in the education process.

Christine Beasley is World Vision's country program manager for Afghanistan. She says developing trust within the family is the only way the program can work, since women cannot travel without male chaperones in more conservative areas of Afghanistan.

"Fathers were afraid for their daughters to travel to the hospitals for training because they feared they'd be harmed or converted to Christianity or taken away from the home for good," says Beasley.

But once the fathers traveled with their daughters they realized their temporary absence, "didn't destroy the fabric of their society," and actually "fulfilled community needs," since women in need of medical care cannot be treated by male doctors.

Male family members are often so impressed by what their wives and daughters can do, they now agree to travel with them to help other women in need in nearby villages.

Elizabeth Walumbe, who trains young women to be midwives says, "This is a chance to educate men [too] ... once they know the benefit, they become so supportive."

Walumbe has witnessed the transformation herself. She often invites the male chaperones into class or into her office to witness what she is teaching their wives or daughters.

"By the time they [leave] the office, all could see how empowered both the midwife students and their male chaperone had become just from the way they carried themselves. Their gait proved to us that we were indeed seeing transformation taking place in front of us, just by the fact that we involved the men in our activities with the students."

Sharma, whose organization advocates for women, takes the idea one step farther. She says it's time the United States and other countries consider including women in every project, not just women's projects. And, conversely, including men in every project, regardless of whether it's female-centric.

That doesn't mean Sharma isn't aware of how far behind women are in terms of skills and education – there is no doubt about that. "But," she says, "Afghan women are not satisfied with only women's projects. They also want to be part of the discussions on security, the drug trade and reconciliation. We have to be very careful that giving special attention to women doesn't mean leaving them out of everything else."

Sharma and others are urging U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to integrate genders across all of the United States' assistance programs and foreign policy, in addition to promoting women's empowerment programs in places where women need a special focus.

It's the only way, she says, that Secretary Clinton's own words will ring solidly true, "... human rights are women's rights ... and women's rights are human rights."

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