The REACH Gender Unit: Raising Gender Awareness in Afghanistan
Staff Profile: Miho Sato, Dr. Rahila Juya, and Dr. Sharifullah Haqmal
What is the objective of the REACH Gender Unit?
Miho Sato: The Gender Unit collaborates with all REACH Technical Area programs to see that gender issues are addressed within their program activities. For example, we helped Access to Quality Services with their review and selection of NGOs to receive USAID-funded grants and awards. We made sure that REACH Training and Education incorporated gender-sensitive points into the Community Health Worker training curriculum. We also saw that men and women were equally represented in REACH health education and behavior change materials, particularly flip charts and posters. For example, charts used to explain the importance of personal and household hygiene not only show a woman washing clothes but also depict a man helping her by bringing buckers of water. Repeated exposure to models like this helps change attitudes.
In addition, the Gender Unit has actively promoted the formation of female health councils (shuras). Health care is not truly community based when women are excluded from active participation and decision making, especially when the major health problems in the community are related to mothers and children.
We also established a REACH Gender Committee made up of representatives from each REACH program so that we could address gender issues in our own workplace. Committee members let others know how important it is that both men and women contribute to and participate in USAID-funded REACH and NGO activities.
What made you decide to extend Gender unit activities beyond REACH program development?
In the beginning, I thought that we might be able to help Afghanistan address gender issues through the public sector. I went to the Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) to talk about that. REACH and the MOWA both know that there is a strong connection between women's rights and women's health. For example, a woman's rights extend to having a say in her own reproductive health, such as the right to participate in decisions about family planning and where births will take place—at home or in a health facility—and to obtaining the proper nutrition during pregnancy and having the right to antenatal and postnatal care However, at that time, the MOWA was approaching gender through development programs and specific NGO projects. Consequently, I decided that REACH could further its goal of improving the health of Afghan women and children by developing and implementing its own gender awareness training workshops in the USAID priority provinces. And so we did.
Has the MOWA benefited from the REACH workshops as well?
Yes. Using what we've learned over the past 12 months, we're standardizing our gender training materials, agendas and outlines. Now we're in the process of transferring all these materials to the MOWA and the MOPH so they can be used more broadly.
How did the Gender Unit get provincial gender awareness training workshops underway?
Dr. Rahila Juya joined the Gender Unit in October 2004. Right away, she and I began surveying existing gender training materials in Dari and adapting international materials to the Afghan context. We had everything just about ready when we received an invitation from the REACH Bamyan Field Office to hold our first workshop there—and soon! An assessment done by the Bamyan Provincial Public Health Coordination Committee (PPHCC)¹ had found a particular need for gender awareness training—especially in regard to women's reproductive rights. The workshop in Bamyan was the first of a series of REACH gender awareness workshops conducted in 12 provinces between February 2005 and 2006.
What do the gender training workshops involve?
Who attends the gender training workshops?
Participants usually include REACH NGO-grantee staff, staff from the MOPH provincial offices, provincial government officials, and PPHCC members. We emphasize that the ratio of male/female participants is 50/50. In some provinces, the workshops were the first time that men and women had been seated in the same room.
It sounds as though gender awareness training has been well received. Afghanistan is a traditional society. Have there been any particular challenges?
What changes did you make?
When we returned to Kabul, I received valuable advice from Dr. Sediqa Hofiani, who had introduced a gender awareness exercise into REACH Refresher training for Community Health Workers. She suggested we begin by putting workshop participants in groups to discuss and make notes on the condition of women before and after Islam. By comparing women's roles and status pre- and post-Islam, the Afghans could easily grasp what the term gender meant and were ready to connect the concept to the present day. We took her advice and reorganized our material to put women and Islam first in line as a topic.
To help people realize that gender issues are not simply women's problems, we also invited more and more men to participate and to act as co-facilitators, including representatives from Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, an NGO. We also invited religious leaders and members of the National Solidarity Program's (NSP) community development councils to join us. The NSP promotes women's participation in community decision making and provides grants for women's development projects, so it was natural to include and support them.
Dr. Juya is now the Family Planning Officer in the REACH Safe Motherhood unit, where she can connect family planning to gender equity. Dr. Sharifullah Haqmal, her successor, has gone on to conduct gender training workshops in Khost, Paktya and Paktika provinces, thought to be among the country's most conservative. The workshops were not only well received and attended but also the staff of the Community Midwifery Program in the provinces urged Dr. Haqmal to return to train them as well as the entire student body, which he did. Since then the number of women participating in the PPHCC has increased and female community health committees have been established at Health Facility and Health Post levels. The Provincial Health Directors of all three provinces recently honored Dr. Haqmal, and REACH, with Certificates of Appreciation.
Thank you, Miho, for giving us this interview.
You're welcome. I'm glad to speak about the work of the REACH Gender Unit. Women in Afghanistan were denied the most basic human rights by the Taliban, and many still do not have the right to participate in decisions that directly effect their personal lives and health. Afghan women also have a lot to contribute to the reconstruction of their country. In my travels throughout Afghanistan, I have met hundreds of men and women who agree and are working to ensure women these rights. REACH is very happy to have been able to help them in that effort.
¹ REACH Provincial Strengthening and Support (PSS) helped establish Provincial Public Health Coordinating Committees (PPHCC) in the USAID priority provinces. Representatives from REACH NGO-grantees, non-REACH NGOs and the MOPH Provincial Public Health Office, as well as representatives of donors or other agencies working in the province, sit on these committees.