A WISE Woman’s Quest to Change Afghan Women’s Lives

Three months ago, Fouzia travelled seven hours from Girdi Jungal, Pakistan to the Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, running away from her abusive husband and his two murderous wives to live with her mother. Under the guise of worry for her son’s mental and physical health, she told her husband that her mother had connections to doctors in Afghanistan who could treat their son. This was the only reason her husband allowed her to visit her mother and it was the excuse she used to never return to him.

Fouzia’s father died when she was young and her mother had no means of supporting the family. Living on the streets and with no food, Fouzia’s grandmother had no other choice but to give her away in marriage and use her dowry to make ends meet. She sold Fouzia, at age 14, to a wealthy man living in Pakistan for 6,000,000 afghani (estimated $940).

“I can’t forget the day my mother was screaming and crying out the door as my in-laws took me away,” Fouzia said.

It was only after she arrived in Pakistan that Fouzia discovered her husband had two other wives, who would eventually murder her husband’s fourth and latest bride. Fouzia’s only purpose was to be used as tool to reproduce and have children. Her husband abused, harassed and forced her into pregnancy—essentially marital rape.  And now he plans to marry off their eldest daughter, only eight years old.

“I can’t let [my husband] do that without seeing [my daughter] again,” Fouzia said. “She is staying with his other wives and I cannot understand the joy of seeing my mother and family because I am so worried about her.”

Barely at the age of 30, Fouzia arrived at the clinic in Kandahar with her son, physically unfit and psychologically disturbed. She was severely anemic, vitamin deficient, dehydrated, had a TB infection and suffered from psychological disorders. Her concerned mother believed Fouzia was experiencing jinn possessions and unsuccessfully enlisted the help of several mullahs and doctors. Fouzia confided that she contemplated getting her tubes tied so she could no longer get pregnant and her husband would divert his attention to his other wives.

It was stories like Fouzia’s and many others like her in Afghanistan that inspired 23-year-old Nbyia Rasoully to found Women’s Initiative for Sanctioning Empowerment, a non-profit dedicated to providing medical relief and educational assistance for women and children worldwide.

This past summer, Rasoully travelled to Afghanistan, her parent’s homeland, on WISE’s first-ever mission to distribute medical supplies and basic necessities to clinics. The organization visited clinics and orphanages in five different provinces: Kandahar, Bamiyan, Wardak, Nangarhar and Laghman.

“This experience helped me realize the amount of help these people need, how much I was not able to provide them,” she said.

Though Kandahar is known for its volatile and dangerous environment, Rasoully made it a point to visit clinics in this oft forgotten and neglected city, which is where she met Fouzia and her son.

WISE provided items such as sterile surgical equipment for hospitals, prenatal vitamins for pregnant mothers, iron supplements for anemic patients, first aid creams for children visiting the Emergency Room, and multivitamins for breastfeeding mothers and children.

But entering the rural villages of Afghanistan as a woman health worker from the West was challenging and uncomfortable for Rasoully.

“Everyone gave me a look like I didn’t belong there,” she said.

And though the Afghan male leaders and officials were integral actors in the success of Rasoully’s work, she still felt intimidated and uncomfortable around them simply because was a woman. She was often told to sit out of male-dominated meetings with the doctors and government officials because it was deemed culturally inappropriate and her reputation would be at risk for being too forward.

“The men would look at me weird,” she said. “They would tell me to just give [the medicine] to the males or the community elders and let them handle it, that girls shouldn’t handle it.”

Coming from America was an even greater battle having to overcome stereotypes of not speaking the local language or that she was spoiled, unable to comprehend their problems and circumstances. But once she started to speak with the women at the clinics in Pashto, the patients would start to feel comfortable and open up to Rasoully.

“They would ask about how to get education and how to become leaders and make a difference in their communities,” Rasoully said. “They looked at me as a role model and inspiration.”

The Afghan women were eager and ambitious to learn, but Rasoully found it difficult to give them advice because they were uneducated, poor, and women living in a male-run society. They lacked any resources or outlets to break out of their circumstance. The power disparity between Rasoully and the female patients at the clinic made her feel weak and powerless.

“There was just such little hope and opportunity for the women,” Rasoully said. “At times it made me feel useless, which is what motivates me to go back and provide assistance on a larger scale in the future.”

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