Tag Archives: Mary Dobbing

Snowy morning in Kabul

Pandora’s Hope meets Afghan Action

 by Mary Dobbing

Snowy morning inKabul
Snowy morning inKabul

One morning we headed out to listen in on a joint meeting between the seamstresses at Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope, the APV based seamstresses. The morning was bright and cold with freshly fallen snow covering the roads and buildings.  A deep blue sky spread above the snow covered mountains and the morning mist was dissolving in strong sunshine. From the car we could see men shovelling snow – with attention to the getting it off the roofs. Small avalanches of fluffy new snow fell onto the sidewalks from the flat roofs.

Afghan Action’s seamstresses are forming themselves into a cooperative and are starting to get contracts to make uniforms. The meeting was to explore whether they and Pandora’s Hope could collaborate in any way.

Two stoves were burning away with big brass tea kettles warming on top when we arrived with the Pandora’s Hope seamstresses. Afghan Action’s workshop has about thirty sewing machines and big windows looking out over a sunny courtyard with a garden and trees. There were two large cutting tables at the front and a pressing table with a sleeve press. It was a bright room with giant low energy light bulbs providing a good working light. The wood laminate floor was warm and clean, and steel girders held up the wooden roof.

VCNV with Afghan Action Carpets
VCNV with Afghan Action Carpets

Afghan Action is funded from donations from Britain, and some earnings from carpet weaving. Their seamstresses are salaried while they train for one year. Pandora’s Hope women train for a few weeks and do not receive any money. Their work space is used both as a classroom and sleeping room at other times of the day, so all the sewing machines have to be put away. There was a sense that Afghan Action’s women were better trained and they certainly had better equipment and conditions.  All the women had a sewing machine permanently installed with separate tables in a dedicated work space. Afghan Action’s seamstresses have had help forming a business making garments which it is hoped will become self-sustaining. Pandora’s Hope would like to do this for their seamstresses.

The meeting was being held between the seamstresses from both ‘firms’. After Salaam’s all round, the men from each firm introduced the issues which were not translated. There were about thirty young women aged 16-17 years and four or five older women in the meeting. There were some questions and answers between the two groups including some long statements by the women. And occasionally everyone giggled covering their mouths with an end of a scarf, and then looked more serious again.

Maya EvansPinned to the walls were samples of work and paper patterns. There were samples of women’s tops with gathered pleats and embroidered chest panels in several colours. There was a white lab coat and some black blouses. These samples were arranged to attract customers for contracts for uniforms.

There are specific challenges for Afghan women going into business. The Carpet Weavingwomen are unwilling to work from shop front premises in the bazaar. Being open to the public in a shop, and selling and displaying goods are social no-no’s for Afghan women. The culture dictates that women are confined to the domestic and family spheres.Making Afghan Carpets Families prefer women to work at home and all of the above are hard to do in a conservative society. Therefore their problem is how to market their products, take orders and deliver orders to customers.

Outside men were still shovelling vast amounts of snow off the flat roofs. It’s landing with resonant thumps on the walkways outside punctuating the discussion. We left the women to talk while we met with Samim (Manager of Afghan Action) in his office.

Talking with Afghan Action Manager
Talking with Afghan Action Manager

He explained that Afghan Actions’ seamstresses have had one year of training. The primary challenge is how to employ the women and promote independent and sustainable businesses after their training finishes. The first cohort of trainees has just finished and ten or fifteen of the women want to create a business together. They will need to be licensed to get investment from the Afghan Support Investment Agency (ASIA). They hope to get small contracts for uniforms for schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels etc. As they graduate from their training Afghan Action wants to help the team to start a business. The greatest fear is that after training for a year the women will disperse back to their homes, with no work and no longer getting the training salary. Their training and the business opportunities may evaporate as though nothing had ever happened.

The global economic downturn has affected Afghanistan and the surrounding countries too, and now the orders have stopped. The options remaining for the newly trained seamstresses are:

  • Local marketing – design the garments themselves and get orders from friends and relatives.
  • Contract market – schools, hospitals, restaurants etc
  • Make up their own designs and bring them to the market and sell to the public – traditional Afghan clothes.

While the women had their discussion we heard about another of Afghan Aid’s projects. Afghan Aid also supports carpet weaving and training. The trainees get schooling in Information Computer Technology (ICT), business skills, accounting, literacy, and a bit of English. There is a health care nurse on site to help with minor ailments.

The carpet weaving project is in its seventh year. The sewing project is in its first year. Afghan Action has registered with the Ministries of Business, Economy, Women, and Education. The trainees get a certificate at the end of their training.

The economics of both carpet weaving and sewing garments is stacked against the new Afghan Action trainees. Apprentice made goods are relatively expensive compared to factory production or imports from China and Pakistan. The income from sales of trainees’ pieces is needed to fund more trainees sustainably. Selling the pieces locally means paying a margin to a middle person which also ramps up the item costs.

Afghan CarpetsThe carpet weaving graduates are finding employment in the Kabul carpet factories which is a significant achievement. But the trainees’ apprentice carpets which are sold to raise funds for further trainee places, are valued at $200 per square metre which is more than the carpets from the factories cost. Then there are problems with the expense of difficult and dangerous overland transport. Exporting the carpets costs $15 per kilo in transport alone, which adds yet more to the costs of marketing the carpets outside the country.

For British outlets selling Afghan Aid’s carpets look at www.afghanaction.org

We were called back in to the meeting in the sewing workshop to hear the upshot of the women’s discussion. There had been a searching conversation. Some of the differences emerging between the two groups were:

Working hours. There was a difference in availability between Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope women about working hours. Afghan Action will come to work whether or not there is work to do. Pandora’s Hope would find that hard to do. Working 08:00-16:00 would not be acceptable to the families of the Pandora’s Hope women.

Separation from men. Pandora’s Hope need a work room where they can be separate from men. Afghan Action’s workshop arrangements cannot guarantee this.

Wages. In a single day they need to earn 500 Afghanis (or $10) per worker in order to help their families.

International Support. They request an international supporter to provide a foreign market for goods. They think they can get a better market for their goods abroad. The middle men in local Afghan markets take a cut and this reduces earnings.

At the end of this day’s discussions, Samim told to us that the seamstresses had agreed to share marketing. But Pandora’s Hope women need to decide whether to work at home or in workshops. They are clear that at the moment their families would not let them go out to work all day. They are needed at home for childcare and domestic duties. The Afghan Aid seamstresses are able to go to the workshop in the day.  The outcome of discussions on this day was that Pandora’s Hope and Afghan Action would stay separate for the time being aside from marketing.

Later, back at the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s community house we debriefed about the visit. It was explained to us that it is now the norm in Kabul for trainees get paid to do training.  International non-governmental organisations have introduced payment for training and created an expectation that payment will be made. Now people no longer value skills acquisition without the inducement of payment. As well as this, Afghan Aid has the added problem with dependency and how to get the trainees to move on to gainful employment when the training (and the training allowance) comes to an end. Unemployment is estimated to be 36% but there are no reliable statistics and no social security. This is just the male population,  there are no figures for women’s unemployment.

The women want to help with the family budget but they are hardly ever allowed to work. One woman from Pandora’s Hope said that coming to the sewing training was the first time she had ever been able to leave the home. The women said that there was a suspicion in their families that they will be seen by men, and that they were earning money, which can cause tensions at home. Contact with other women is important, however, for their personal and professional development. At the APV community the training space is ‘safe’ for the 5 months of the women’s training and it guarantees to the families that they will not be seen by men there.

The women come to sewing training for one hour at the APV community Mary with seamstresshome. They told us that if they were ever late home after training they stood the risk of being punished. Both of the women’s training groups are of mixed ethnicity. The women can get argumentative among themselves when resolving conflicts and this can divide along ethnic divisions and suspicions. For the women who have only just come out of the house, the prospect of starting a business is unthinkable, a huge leap in aspiration. The children of the women at the sewing training come to the community’s classes and learn in mixed (ethnicity and sex) classes which helps to broaden their horizons.

Mary with Pandora's Hope seamstresses
Mary with Pandora’s Hope seamstresses

The achievement of the women and the support of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Afghan Aid cannot be underestimated. For women to get together and to be able to thrash out their business models and plans without men or managers is unusual. The aim is to let them work it all out with minimal interference unless specific expertise is demanded. The objective is an economically sustainable project which benefits the women not only through learning skills in sewing garments for sale, but also increasing women’s confidence by letting them work out how to run their business themselves.

UK delegation with Pandora's Hope- women's seamstresses co-operative
UK delegation with Pandora’s Hope- women’s seamstresses co-operative
Hakim's Pics: Bereaved Afghan Mother

For Mothers Everywhere, Bereaved by Senseless Violence

Hakim's Pics: Bereaved Afghan Mother

By Mary Dobbing

This is written following the news of bombs set off at the Boston Marathon on 15th April. So far three people are reported dead and dozens seriously injured with many suffering amputations of limbs. Amongst the dead in Boston was an eight year old boy. Last December we visited an Afghan mother and heard from her the effects of the sudden violent loss of her two sons in a suicide bomb in Kabul.

We were driven to a home on the outskirts of Kabul. The entrance to the typical Afghan courtyard house was through metal gates from a narrow alley of high mud brick walls. The neighbourhood was a maze of similar blank walled lanes filled with puddles and snow, and only as wide as a car.

Smiling Giggling Girls

The gates opened into a sunny courtyard full of smiley giggling girls, and chickens. With shy Salams from the women and girls we entered, taking off our shoes, and were ushered into a long empty room. There was no furniture, only an alcove of shelves with a curtain across it. A quilt hung over the door to keep in the warmth. At one end of the room, large windows let in the dazzling winter sun on two aspects, giving its warmth through the glass. Between the windows on the floor was a pile of quilts under which, unseen, was a wood-burning stove (called a kursi I think). On top of the pile of quilts, which was held up by a table top of some sort, was a dried circular cheese about twelve inches across and stuck with flies, which was the only object in front of us as we met the bereaved mother and her two remaining children.

In any other circumstances this would have been a delightful encounter. We were invited to sit around the unseen stove and we pushed our legs under the edges of the quilts. We sat around, warm and toasty, with the stove at our feet and the warmed quilts pulled up to our waists. Behind us on the outside window ledges curious chickens pecked at the glass.

Bereaved Afghan Mother with her 2 Children
Bereaved Afghan Mother with her 2 Children

At one edge of the table our hostess sat with a small girl and a small boy either side of her. Her eyes were dull and she looked depressed. She told the story of the loss of her children in a suicide bombing, mechanically, in a monotone voice racked by prolonged grief. There were long silences between her statements which we held respectfully, but I longed to know how we could comfort her. A crowd of girls and older women sat along the edge of the room like a Greek chorus watching and listening to the story and its translation.

Choir of girls
Choir of girls

The mother told us about her pain. She told us of the tragedy and shock of her young sons being randomly killed by a suicide bomber who had targeted one of the numerous NATO convoys in the streets of Kabul. The two boys had been walking to school and the suicide bomber triggered his device killing them along with other bystanders.  They went out to school on an ordinary day and never came home. She said that even now she still cannot bear to let the other children out of her sight, let alone go to school. She asked “what will become of them?” When we asked them, the girl said she wanted to be a teacher and the boy wanted to be a doctor.

APV Fais shares his experiences

It happens that one of our Afghan Peace Volunteer friends lost a cousin in the same suicide bombing attack in Kabul. He was able to tell the bereaved mother about his loss and they both looked very sad. Fais has recounted[1] elsewhere how he witnessed his older brother being murdered in the civil war when he was in Bamiyan Province. He has lost more than one close relative to the violence. These are but two of the untold thousands of stories of loss and trauma experienced by ordinary Afghans from the last thirteen years of war.

There is a wealth of latent talent and ambition among young Afghan men and women waiting impatiently for peace and some education provision so that they can realise their dreams. But this generation are being blighted by lack of opportunity and insecurity, as well as the struggle against the effects of psychological trauma from the endless violence.

Bereaved Afghan Mother with Beth & Mary

We asked the bereaved mother what message we could take back to British people. She answered “create peace and security so that Afghans can have a life”.

I would add, “so that we can all have a life” where ever in the world we are. Tanzeel Merchant wrote about how he was nearly among the casualties at the international meeting which was the Boston Marathon. He wrote

“The US, like many other countries in the world, must and will carry the consequences and responsibility of decades of interference and self-interest that have undermined the histories of other nations. But does wilfully killing innocent bystanders at an event, that is meant to bring people together, really further any cause? What ethic or religion condones matching blood with blood?

By the time the dust settles in at Copley Square, there will be a new enemy, new hatred, and new scars to add to the ones from last afternoon…. And the world will be no safer or better than it was when we woke up [to that] new morning of promise just 24 hours [before].

P.S: I encourage you to share your thoughts… Please be gentle, considerate and kind, both here and to those around you. Life’s too short to be otherwise.” [2]

The Afghan Peace Volunteers have as their logo a blue scarf which says for them “We are all human beings under the same blue sky”. Why not be friends?


[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yufP1iRr0z4&list=UUqLgo4v6w-BJtv_00XTs70g&index=108

[2] http://forbesindia.com/search.php?writer=Tanzeel%20Merchant

The Struggle for Justice

member of transitional justice network talking to vcnc uk delegation

By Mary Dobbing

“Why do you pay taxes?”

This was the answer we got from most of the people we met in Kabul when we asked “what do you want to say to British people?” The Afghans we met were well aware that the United States is spending nearly $2 billion a week on the war and the British around £1.6 billion a year since 2001.  Of this, 94% of (US) spending was on the military and only 6% on diplomacy and aid between 2001 and 2009.

Our hosts in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, have dedicated themselves to living non-violently and to helping the poor. Their witness for peace extends to a network of like-minded people who we were introduced to. Afghans are sick and tired of war and of living with fear and insecurity. In thirty five years of war two million Afghans have died and many more have been physically and psychologically maimed; more again have left the country and are living in exile as refugees. They long for more than an absence of war. We heard from everyone that they need jobs, education and health services for sustainable peace, and justice. Human rights activists say the country is doomed to repeat its violent past if abuses are not brought to light and prosecuted. Justice is something which all ethnicities, factions and religious persuasions can unite around and it offers a nonviolent way forward for resolving the conflicts and hurt.

As well as current grievances about government corruption and the perception that officials and politicians pocket all the foreign aid, there is also the problem of the past and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity – many of whom are allegedly among the politicians and government officials in post today.

We met a representative from the Transitional Justice Group (TJG) which is an umbrella group of forty grassroots organisations asking the Afghan government for a system of transitional justice. As well as this the TJG want a network for the victims of war to be formed to empower them to speak out about the crimes meted out to them. Some victims are beginning to speak out but do so in fear of retribution from the perpetrators. Outside of Kabul the victims have no voice to speak out. The same war criminals are in power in the regions as committed the crimes, so speaking out for victims can be lethally dangerous. The TJG’s hope is to work outwards from Kabul to empower the people to speak out and to make the provincial officials and politicians accountable for their crimes against humanity.

The TJG want all war criminals to be brought to justice and to ensure that none will be given positions of power. The Afghan government has responded to the evidence of the crimes by granting an amnesty to all war criminals for crimes committed before 2001. It was in 2001 that the transitional government lead by President Hamid Karzai was formed, and therefore the amnesty removes the threat of prosecution from those in power now.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) produced the report a year ago outlining their research into massacres and war crimes for the period 1978-2011. The report, “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978” was compiled from interviews with the families of victims of war by forty researchers over six years and was commissioned by the Afghan government. The findings in the 800-page document include evidence of 180 mass graves, killings of civilians and prisoners, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and the destruction of towns and villages. The report gave rise to controversy because of the names it named and the Afghan government will not publish it. Many of the names mentioned in the report were Mujahedeen war criminals which are now in the government. The AIHRC is still demanding that the report is released into the public domain, locally and internationally.

The AIHRC’s report A Call for Justice (January 2005), was a vision for transitional justice from grassroots organisations and promoted peace with justice. But it has been met with only obstacles and challenges. The Action Plan for Transitional Justice (December 2005) was the government’s response to ‘A Call for Justice’ and upheld their four demands:

1. Acknowledge the suffering of the Afghan people.

10th December has been designated a special day for the recognition of the victims of war. Memorials have been established and museums created about the lives of the wars’ victims and their families.

2. Ensure credible and accountable state institutions.

The government should be able to set up processes to try the perpetrators/criminals. But this hasn’t happened to date.

3. Truth-seeking and documentation.

The conflict mapping report which documents the war crimes and the conflicts that have happened in the last three decades has been submitted but not published. It is still with the President’s office.

4. Promotion of reconciliation and national unity.

This would entail, amongst other things, a process being set up to hold war criminals accountable and to try them in court. Ideally it would be followed by a procedure between the families of victims of war and the war criminals whereby they could forgive the crime or demand the due process of law.

President Hamid Karzai has refused to extend the action plan for transitional justice which expired in March 2009 and which failed to achieve most of its targets, according to human rights groups. A “Catch 22” is that the war criminals are seen as needed in the negotiations to bring the war to an end, but threatening them with prosecution is an obstacle to getting them to the table.

In addition to this we were told that the Afghan government has pursued two ‘ineffective’ processes, with the support of the international community. Millions of dollars have been expended on these (including from Japan):

1)       Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR). AIHRC sees this as a failed programme adding that “no one has been able to disarm the Afghans”.

2)       The government has been releasing Taliban prisoners from Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is dangerous the TJG thinks because the Taliban’s ideology is still for an ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. And this policy is bound to fail because these people are also guilty of terrible war crimes.

We also met with one of the member groups of the TJG which works with the families of victims of war called the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers. The woman spokesperson said that the biggest problem is that the people who perpetrated the crimes against humanity are still in positions of power in the Afghan government. She added that regrettably the US/NATO forces who have occupied the country for the last 11 years are complicit in these crimes and they themselves have committed war crimes in the provinces. She says that no conflict in any other country has been resolved by military force from foreign countries and no foreign force can bring peace to Afghanistan by military means. She added that it’s clear to her that no foreign force is in Afghanistan to bring peace, democracy and justice but only to serve their own interests.

Concerns for the draw-down of US/NATO forces in 2014 and why:

The Afghans sense that the international community is tired of waging war and they will pull out leaving them in the lurch. In the TJG’s view more and more options are being offered which will allow the Taliban to return to power, for example, by negotiating with them. The Taliban’s rhetoric is that negotiating a settlement with the international community will mean that they have ‘won’ and that this will sit well with the rest of the Islamic world. Then there is the added danger that the Taliban will get money and weapons support to regain power as well as getting regional kudos. We met people who remembered Kabul during the last Taliban regime and they were deeply concerned about a repeat of that reign of repression and terror.

What can British people do?

British people are asked to consider how their tax pays for pointless and ineffective military intervention and how it bolsters a corrupt government whose members are strongly implicated in war crimes.

We were asked to encourage the British government to look at a peace process which is good for the people of Afghanistan, and not just the ruling elite and the military. Internal prejudices and internal divisions have always been there and foreign military interventions have simply exacerbated the ethnic and religious divisions.

The people of Pakistan also need processes of justice. The British government should hold the Pakistan government accountable for training and sending increasing numbers of Taliban across the border into Afghanistan which exacerbates the conflict.

The Afghan Transitional Justice Group believe the people of Afghanistan want justice but there is not enough international support or active groups in Afghanistan demanding it.  On the one hand, Afghans differ greatly in how justice should be brought to Afghanistan, and on the other hand, the international community seems to think that weapons are the only way to enforce justice in Afghanistan. The TJG believes judicial processes are needed for a sustainable peace. Without justice there cannot be peace.