Women from all over rural Parwan province reach out to Hosai Bayani with the hopes that she can solve their problems. The story of one 15-year-old girl has stuck with the Afghani politician and women’s rights activist.
“I don’t want to go with my father because [my half-brother] killed my mother and now he would kill me or sell me,” the girl told Bayani after her father offered to pay about $1000 to have her returned to his custody.
Bayani was able to intervene and ensure that the girl stayed with her maternal grandfather — and not marry until she turned 18.
In an interview international nonprofit organization Women for Women International (WfWI) conducted with Bayani and shared with ThinkProgress, the unlikely activist talked about her route to the Provincial Council in a country where few women work outside the home — or even feel safe leaving their houses alone.
Women For Women
Although increasing “rights and dignity of women” was one outspoken aim of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, few real advances in terms of gender equality have resulted from the 15-year long conflict.
“Walk down any street, or into any government office, or into any hospital, police station, business or university, and you have to ask yourself, ‘Where are the women?’” Rob Few of the U.N. Development Program in Kabul said. “We’ve come a long way since 2001, but we need to do more to make women safer and to allow them to take part in economic and public life.”
That is a big part of what Bayani has tried to achieve since she was first elected to the provincial council in 2009.
“Sometimes women call me or send their requests by phone or by paper about their issue or problem to my office or home,” she said. “They [tell me] that their husband is physically violent, or their husband is addicted to drugs.”
Women often avoid going to the police with their issues or seeking legal redress for their grievances because of a fear of the social stigma that’s stacked against women in Afghanistan, Bayani explained. And so they come to her.
“I try to solve their problems at home with the help of community and family elders from both sides of the family without interruption of government and the attorney’s office,” she said. “They trust me and would accept my advice.”
Part of the reason why women in Parwan place so much faith in her is because she understands the sorts of issues they’re going through.
“It has been almost 37 years that I am living without my husband,” she said. “I suffered a lot of problems. These [problems] all encouraged me to apply for the provincial council, to help women who really need my support.”
Bayani’s husband married another women without officially ending their marriage: “[D]ivorce is a very shameful word in our culture,” she said.
Bayani continued in her husband’s father’s home along with her children. Doing so earned her respect from men around her because she remained married and maintained a peaceful relationship with her in-laws.
“All the people of Charikar [the capital of Parwan] knew about my problem,” she said. “They trust me and respect me because I raised four educated children.”
She’s also been able to improve her community through her work on the provincial council. Bayani has worked to improve the area’s water systems and, with the help of a local legal organization, she helped find safe haven for 200 women with domestic issues.
After being re-elected to her seat in 2014, she has focused her attention on improving roads, canals, and schools in Parwan.
“The ones who participated in the election and voted for me — I try to work for them in the future. I’m looking forward to them bringing me their requests,” she said. “If they need my support to introduce them to other government departments, then I will support them.”
While she said she hasn’t faced any security threats, Bayani knows well the risks involved in serving in public office as a woman.
A 2015 Amnesty International survey of 50 women human rights’ defenders found that even though many of them risk their lives for their work, authorities refused to take the threats made against them seriously
“Anti-government groups are targeting prominent and outspoken women’s rights advocates [in order to] spread fear among other women’s rights activists [and] stop their activities,” Roghul Khairkhlwah, a senator from Nimroz province told the advocacy organization.
A car she traveled in with her family came under Taliban fire in 2013, and she was shot nine times. Khairkhlwah survived, but her seven year old daughter and brother were killed in the attack.
The Taliban — who are again gaining ground in Afghanistan — have made it a point to hound human rights’ defenders. The women who ran a shelter for women who were the victims of violence were forced to flee for their lives after the Taliban destroyed all that they had built in Kunduz last year.
Bayan knows the risks she faces for her work — but it’s her hope for a better future for her country outshines them.
“When you increase the level of knowledge of women and family, the security all over the country, the economy, and solving economic problems,” she said, “Then easily it can bring changes to Afghan women’s lives.”