By Joan Lewa
From August 2014 to March 2015, I had the pleasure of working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Kabul, Afghanistan. Many thought I was insane to accept the short-term contract in such a war-torn country. Some even bid me a “see you in heaven” goodbye since I was sending myself to the gallows. For me, I considered it an opportunity of a lifetime knowing I will be able to meet Afghan women, who I’d heard so much about, especially their determination in the fight for equality, voting rights, equal employment opportunities among other.
Afghanistan, a mountainous landlocked country located in South Asia, is famously known for the long-term unrest caused by war. Worst is the way women are treated, confined to extremism in religion, negative social and economic elements. For decades, Afghan women have been second class citizens, not even allowed to vote in elections. They were married at 13 years and no option for divorce and no chance of inheriting anything. The women were never allowed to move around without an escort of a male.
During my stay, and working as a development communications outreach for USAID gave me an opportunity have many site visits with the escort of the American marines. Some of my duties were to move around and collect success stories and blogs which I would publish on website. Over the period, I got to meet many women and girls. One thing was for sure – The More Revolution had indeed reached Afghanistan and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) especially the mobile phone and internet were favorably helping in the process of empowering women and girls.
The “More” in terms of donor funding is one positive aspect that contributed to Afghanistan’s rapid growth of ICT. It happened at a time where millions of dollars from development partners was poured in the country from donors. It will be noted that many targeted the interests of women especially in changing the conservative attitudes towards women. The influx of (More) cheap smartphones from China which retail for as little as ten dollars was an important variable that contributed to the growth of ICT in Afghanistan. Of “more” noteworthy is the “youth bulge” that constituted of millions of young people of below thirty years. These youths, majority being women and girls, desired progress in their fight for human rights faster than the Afghan government could give. They, in numerous numbers and equipped with the use of mobile phones and internet became difficult to control and with that power, they have managed to improve their livelihood.
Social media advances understanding of girls and women’s rights
One of the girls I had the opportunity to meet is Hamira Hamidi. “I was afraid to join Facebook”, she explains. I was afraid because this was a rare thing for women and girls in Afghanistan. Since joining social media, Hamira now has over 1,500 Facebook friends and over 6000 Twitter followers. “When I learn of a woman who is not on Facebook, I say ‘how do you exist without Facebook?’”. Working as a consultant for women’s right campaigns, she is able to use social media to reach out to thousands of women and children, educating them of their rights. Hamira also set up the Afghan Women’s Network of Technology which has a coalition of more than 90 women groups.
Mobile-money Transfer Deepens Financial Inclusion
Another impressive stride that mobile technology has given to the Afghan women is the use of mHawala (mobile money). Typically, women in Afghanistan are not allowed to work away from home. They have to be escorted by a male when leaving the house the only job they are allowed is that of tailoring, where they are confined to a room. The mHawala mobile technology, a home-based business that allows transfer of cash, payment of bills and even a personal bank is changing women’s lives. I met Fardha Ahmed, who impressively defied the trend of women unemployment and became a mobile money agent for a telecommunications company. Fardha believes that by doing so, she is preparing a way for other women who are looking for jobs. She works from home and offers the mHawala services to neighbors, local business people and relatives. She earns seven percent per transaction, customer registrations and sale of pre-paid cards. “My dad refused that I work outside of my house” said Fardha, 23. “I discussed with father and managed to convince him and now I work from home, the money I get is also helping in paying for my sister’s education.”
Promoting Social Justice
“We are able to post on social media women injustices taking place here,” says Farni Marwad 30. “Hard evidence helps us women get global attention, forcing judges to imprison men who they would have otherwise released.” Farni was a biter woman at the time of my interview with her. She narrated of the case of Farkhunda Malikzada, who had been murdered by in the streets. Killed with medieval cruelty, Malikzada had an argument with a mullah (a religions scholar), where he accused her of burning the Koran. She was then beaten, thrown from the roof, ran over by a car, her body set on fire and later dumped in Kabul River, the police looked on. “Power was out that day so communication was impossible, she says. “I saw it on Facebook, Hamidi had posted it and with all the women’s network, the clip went viral.” Farni smiles at this point because by morning millions of people around the world were condemning the action. The case eventually demonstrated Facebook in action among Afghanistan women. She believes that the judge could not release or give the accused a less conviction because all eyes were on him, especially with the hard evidence circulating on social media.
Reducing the unemployment gap for women
Technology has also helped Ms. Manisha Roya become a role model for girls and women in Afghanistan, especially those who want to become future leaders. Roya, after graduating with a degree in computer science opened her own company where she sells software. The company has 30 employees, 21 of whom are female. Roya represents one of the hundreds of Afghan women who have started companies encompassing the technology world. They believe that the way to peace and modernization in Afghanistan can be found in technology. They are audacious, braving Afghanistan’s cultural and religious norms are marching up with courage to front-run their own companies.
It was good to learn, recently that the Education Ministry in Afghanistan introduced a new literacy application for mobile phones. Ustad Mobil (mobile teacher) will give traditional ways of learning a modern approach. The application will be providing information to both national languages and it also has modules in language and math. Though the Ustad may not end violence against female teachers and learners, it will most definitely make the education policy makers explore further on strategies that will make education accessible to women and girls who are sometimes not allowed to attend schools.
The More revolution should not be mistaken for just quantity but also about improvements in lives as in the case of Afghan women and girls. They are more informed, better educated and bold in educating fellow women of their rights. Thanks to the More revolution, to date, through technology, what had protected power against women is no longer working as the women are more connected with the world than before.
Fond memories of girls and women and how far they have come will always be dear to my heart. Indeed, technology has contributed greatly in the strides they have made to overcome their social, economic, and religious and cultures to be who they are today and much more in future. Technology has helped them become a force in their country’s development. They are participants and not stand-by second class participants and also leaders in a country where they were once dominated. I am so proud to have been a part of this great time, to witness first-hand how technology, especially the internet and social media improved the quality of life for the women and girls of Afghanistan.