Empowering Afghan women to become leaders of tomorrow

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

The ambitious multi-million dollar program, which is the largest women’s empowerment program in the history of USAID, has given hope to millions of women in Afghanistan

Colonel Jamila Bayaz, 51, early last year became the country’s first female officer to be promoted to district police chief in Kabul. The promotion came at a crucial time, just ahead of the presidential elections. Ms. Bayaz, mother-of-five, hogged the headlines globally for commanding a police force that included hundreds of male police officers.

In a deeply patriarchal society where women have traditionally played second fiddle role to men, it was a departure from past. Ms. Bayaz’s appointment as the first female district police chief marked a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan.

In an interview to Afghan Zariza, the pioneering police chief said it is an honor and huge responsibility. “I have always believed in the potential of women in Afghanistan that remains untapped,” said Ms. Bayaz. “I hope I can inspire many more women to take up challenging roles in government and police.”

The national unity government has vowed to empower women in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the launch of PROMOTE, an ambitious project, in November last year said the new government is fully committed to promote girls’ education in Afghanistan. Educating girls, he said, is critical to progress of the country.

multi-million dollar project of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), PROMOTE is the largest women’s empowerment program in the history of USAID, aimed at advancing opportunities for Afghan women who can become leaders of tomorrow. The project seeks to enhance gender equality and expand female participation in the Afghan government, according to the statement issued by USAID Afghanistan.

Almost 216 million USD has been allocated under this project that will be spent in training 75,000 Afghan women between the ages of 18 to 30 in the fields of management, governance and leadership

Almost 216 million USD has been allocated under this project that will be spent in training 75,000 Afghan women between the ages of 18 to 30 in the fields of management, governance and leadership.

According to the USAID statement, it’s main goal is to strengthen Afghanistan’s development by boosting female participation in the economy, helping women gain business and management skills, supporting women’s rights groups and increasing the number of women in decision-making positions within the Afghan government.

“Enormous progress has been made in advancing opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan over the past 11 years,” said Rajiv Shah, USAID administrator. “While there are challenges ahead, Promote underscores our commitment to ensuring that women and girls play a major role in determining Afghanistan’s political and economic future.”

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MWA) has welcomed the program and expressed hope that it will be implemented in all the provinces. Muzhgan Mostafawi, Deputy Minister of Women Affairs, said this ambitious project will tremendously help women in Afghanistan. “We need a clear strategy to implement this projectand I am hopeful it will help in empowering women in this country,” he said.

Women’s participation in the government
Since the fall of Taliban in 2001, remarkable progress has been made and Afghan women have rightfully claimed their space in society. Thousands of women are active in political arena, and many of them are serving in important positions of power. The Afghan parliament today has higher percentage of female representatives than many democracies in the developed world.

The multi-million dollar project seeks to expand female participation in political affairs. Nadia Ahmadi, a Kabul-based women’s rights activist, says it is time to translate promises into action. “Women’s participation is important not only in the government but also in various government-appointed committees to ensure gender parity and higher efficiency,” says Ms. Ahmadi.

The Oslo symposium on ‘Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan’ in December last year underscored the importance of women’s participation in political affairs and decision-making

The Oslo symposium on ‘Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan’ in December last year underscored the importance of women’s participation in political affairs and decision-making. The recommendations made by the participants includes increased participation of women in political affairs, maintaining and developing a quota system for elections that ensures women’s adequate representation at all levels of government and increasing the quota for parliament above 25 percent.

“Participants agreed that advancing women is not only a responsibility of Afghanistan, but also a necessity for peace and development. The symposium called for action to implement commitments and invest in results for women and girls,” said the statement,” said a statement issued by Afghan Women’s Network.

“This ambitious USAID program, hopefully, will address all those issues,” says FereshtaForough, Afghan-American women’s rights activist. “President Ghani should have given adequate representation to women in the new cabinet because political participation holds the key,” she adds.

Women leadership development and economy
In this decade of transformation (2015-2024), a new generation of Afghan women leaders are likely to emerge, who will receive training under this program. According to USAID officials, leadership training programs will be conducted for 25000 women across the country.

To start with, the program will be conductedin Balkh, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul and Nangarhar and will benefit at least 75000 women.

During the launch of this program, President Ghani also informed that the first women’s university will come up in Afghanistan with the assistance of international community

Fawzia Kaufi, Member of Parliament from Faryab province, says the success of this program will be determined by its reach. “For the success of this program, it must benefit women in far-flung provinces, districts and villages too, only just in capital cities,” she says.

Wazhma Safi, Member of Parliament from Kunar province, says prejudice and discrimination against women still prevails in many remote provinces. “While it is true that women in big cities are making progress and creating an impact, the violence and discrimination against women in remote provinces is also a grim reality,” says Ms. Safi. “I hope once this program is implemented, those issues will be addressed.”

During the launch of this program, President Ghani also informed that the first women’s university will come up in Afghanistan with the assistance of international community. “That will immensely benefit young women in Afghanistan who want to pursue higher studies,” says Mariam Alimi, a Kabul-based journalist.

Dr. Abdullah during his meeting with Afghan women activists last month said the government is fully committed to implement the USAID project. He said the government is planning to establish an institution to groom women leaders in Afghanistan, which will be part of this project. “We have to focus on building the infrastructure for women in Afghanistan,” he stressed.

Jawed Faisal, spokesperson of Dr. Abdullah, says implementation of this program is vital for enhancing women’s role in political, economic and social fields. “The government will ensure that the funds are not wasted and benefit maximum number of women in this country,” says Mr. Faisal.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

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For Afghan patients, all routes lead to Indian hospitals

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

India has become a preferred choice for many Afghans who seek advanced treatment for various health issues because of low costs, less hassles and shorter waiting lists for elective surgery 

India has become a preferred choice for many Afghans who seek advanced treatment for various health issues because of low costs, less hassles and shorter waiting lists for elective surgery.

Three-year-old Maryam cannot speak coherently. She stands on her feet but falls down. She mumbles and fumbles like any tender soul of three years. She comes across as a bundle of joys, but the little child nurses excruciating pain inside. She was diagnosed with a serious heart ailment three months back. Her father, Sahil Amanzada, a small-time businessman in western Herat province, immediately flew her to India for treatment.

Maryam was successfully operated at Escorts Heart Institute in South Delhi, after her father managed to put together the amount needed for surgery. A few weeks later, she returned home, hale and hearty. “It was difficult to see our first child go through so much pain, but she somehow pulled it off and we are relieved now,” says Amanzada, with a broad grin.

Amanzada decided to take her to Delhi for treatment because he was not willing to take chance with hospitals and doctors in Afghanistan. “I was not ready to put the life of my child at stake by taking her to some local hospital here. I was certain they will do a great job.”

India has become a preferred choice for many Afghans who seek advanced treatment for various health issues. The hospitals in New Delhi see tremendous rush of Afghan patients and it contributes immensely to medical tourism in India. According to a study by London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), medical tourism has flourished in Asian countries like India because of “low costs, and shorter waiting lists for elective surgery”. Dr. KK Aggarwal, senior consultant at Moolchand Hospital, New Delhi concurs. “In India, healthcare is cheaper and at par with anywhere else in the west, and that brings patients from other countries here, especially Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq and African countries.”

India has become a preferred choice for many Afghans who seek advanced treatment for various health issues. The hospitals in New Delhi see tremendous rush of Afghan patients and it contributes immensely to medical tourism in India

Most of these patients from Afghanistan rent apartments in small, nondescript localities of South Delhi like Lajpat Nagar, Malviya Nagar and Bhogal, which are in close proximity to some of the premier hospitals like Apollo Hospital, Max Hospital, AIIMS and Moolchand Hospital. Mohammad Gulnawaz, who underwent a critical surgery for brain tumor at Max Hospital, rented an apartment for a month in nearby Malviya Nagar. “It was walking distance from hospital and not very expensive,” says Gulnawaz. “There are also some nice Afghan food outlets in the locality and in front of the hospital.”

Mujeeb ur Rehman, 55, damaged his left leg last year in a mine blast while coming to Kabul from Kunar. Doctors in Kabul advised him to go to India or Pakistan for surgery. “I decided to go to India even though it was a little expensive than Pakistan,” says Rehman, sporting a colorful headgear. “After an initial surgical procedure, doctors at Apollo Hospital decided to amputate the leg as infection was chronic.”

Ahmad Saeedi, a Masters student at Delhi University, works as a translator with these patients. He says the rush of patients has been steady since 2003. “Most of the patients come with heart ailments, brain tumors, orthopedic problems and cancer,” Saeedi tells us over telephone from Delhi. “India offers many facilities to these patients from Afghanistan with hassle-free visas and security, unlike Pakistan and Iran.”

As per industry figures, more than 10, 00,000 foreign patients visited India this year, and majority of them from Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the reports about post-surgery superbugs in many hospitals of India, the rush of patients has not simmered. “Patients who came over the last few years have achieved good results and are now referring their friends and relatives too,” says Dr. Yash Gulati, Senior consultant, Apollo Hospital, New Delhi. He makes special mention of Afghan patients. “Most of my foreign patients are from Afghanistan and they always go back happy and healthy.”

According to the Indian Embassy in Kabul, more than 100,000 medical visas have been issued in last three years. “Most of the visa applications are for medical purposes, which shows Indian hospitals are a preferred choice for Afghan patients,” says an embassy official, who is not authorized to speak to media. Fereshta Jameel, a student at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, says it is win-win situation for both Indian and Afghanistan. “It gives a boost to medical tourism in India and helps Afghans get the best medical treatment at an affordable price.”

As per industry figures, more than 10, 00,000 foreign patients visited India this year, and majority of them from Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the reports about post-surgery superbugs in many hospitals of India, the rush of Afghan patients has not simmered.

Dr. Anoop Misra, Director of Centre for Internal Medicine, Fortis Hospital, New Delhi, believes quality of healthcare in some Indian hospitals is probably better than other medical tourism destinations. “All the latest procedures, support facilities and drugs are available. Further, costs here are nearly 1/5th of that in USA and translators are available for languages spoken in Afghanistan, Middle East and Africa. Lodging and food during treatment is also at nominal rates.”

“I needed hip replacement surgery and India was my first choice,” says Shafi Nasiri, resident of Kabul. He underwent surgery at Apollo Hospitals in 2012 and now he is able to walk and run like before. “Although healthcare industry in Afghanistan has significantly improved in last one decade but you still cannot undergo complex surgical procedures here.”

Medical procedures that generally bring foreign patients to India include bypass cardiac interventions, neurosurgeries, orthopedic surgeries, hip replacement, plastic surgery, infertility treatment, and dental implants among others. These procedures, according to Health Digital Systems report, costs half as much in India compared with the US, UK and Europe.

“I attended a conference in Canada recently where a doctor from the U.S. said that bronchial asthma treatment is the fifth most expensive treatment there. I was astonished because in India it costs just a few thousands of rupees,” says Dr. Param Hans Mishra, dean cum administrator, Indian Spinal Injury Centre. Most of the Afghan patients, says Dr. Misra, go to India for the treatment of diabetes, heart diseases and kidney failure.

Many medical tourists, especially from Afghanistan and Middle East, are equally fascinated by the traditional and natural medicine as much by the advancements in modern medicine. Ayurveda, unani and yoga are also popular with medical tourists.

Maryam’s parents are happy today, which is evident from their glowing faces. “I would be wonderful to have such state-of-the-art hospitals and such professionals here also, because not everyone can afford treatment outside the country and the accompanying costs,” says Amanzada. “Till we have our own, I hope Indian hospitals and doctors continue to provide ethical and updated medical care to us,” he adds.

(First published in Afghan Zariza and Scroll.in)