September 17, 2012 | Violence Against Women, War and Peace

Afshan Khan: Now I Know My Neighbor

Women for Women International CEO Afshan Khan shares about her recent journey to Afghanistan, where she helped women impacted by war in Istalif, Afghanistan.

By Afshan Khan, CEO, Women for Women International

Recently, I traveled to Afghanistan to see first-hand the work being done by Women for Women International to help women affected by violence and the war rebuild their lives. When I joined Women for Women International (WfWI) in June as CEO, I knew I needed to spend my first few months visiting all eight countries where WfWI works in order to fully understand the challenges facing the women we serve. Given the all to frequent news stories detailing severe abuses of Afghan women’s rights, it seemed important to start there, to see how effective our attempts to help could be with so much working against us.

For the past ten years, Women for Women International has been able to serve over 42,000 marginalized and socially-excluded women in Afghanistan, despite the ongoing war. Our yearlong program for women focuses on providing them business and vocational skills training, rights awareness, health education, and emotional support, giving them the foundation they need to make the changes they want in their lives. 

As I traveled to Kabul, my first stop in Afghanistan, one of the things that weighed heavily on my mind was the country’s disturbingly high level of violence against women. In the past months, there have been heartbreaking stories of women like Gulnaz, Sahar Gul, Lal Bibi, and others whose lives have been endangered or tragically ended. Before my trip, reports emerged of a young woman, Najiba, who was publicly executed for adultery by members of the Taliban. I visited Parwan province, where the execution took place, just a two-hour drive north from Kabul. It’s one of several regions where WfWI works.

Estimates say that nearly 9 in 10 women in Afghanistan experience some form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lives. For most of these women, escaping violence is far from easy. Although laws exist to make violence against women illegal, they are seldom enforced. WfWI’s Afghanistan Country Director, Sweeta Noori, told me that much is left up to the police and local justice system when deciding how to deal with reported violence against a woman, which can make it impossible for a woman to receive any justice.

In my time here, I’ve learned that many of the women we serve have experienced similar abuse in their past. Often they come from rural areas or live in relative isolation. Few have had the opportunity to go to school. Literacy rates are extremely low and few are able to participate in structured community activities.

On my second day in Afghanistan, I had the chance to meet with several graduates of our program. I talked with them about their experiences in the program. Many of them told me they lived in isolated areas, often without electricity or other “basic necessities.” I asked them what was the best part of the program for them?

One woman told me, “I was able to leave my house twice a week. It gave me the chance to talk with other women like me.”

Another woman told me, “Now I finally know my neighbor.”

Still another said that the WfWI program had given her status in her family as she now contributed to their well being.

It can seem like such a small thing – knowing your neighbor, being able to talk with other women, making friends. But many of the women who come to our programs live in homes isolated from the outside world. They are not allowed to venture beyond the walls of their homes, unless a male guardian accompanies them.

That’s why this program is so important to women. They’re given the space and freedom to discover who they are, to recognize they are not alone in their troubles, and to learn how to move past them.

The graduates also told me that at the end of the yearlong program, a lot more than just their ability to leave their homes had changed. They had begun to participate in their community’s activities for the first time. Learning about their rights in the program changed how they thought of themselves and their position in their families. They found the courage to voice their opinions, share ideas and experiences, and did their best to share information about human rights with other women in their community.  

In Afghanistan, the challenges for women go beyond access to healthcare, education, and nutrition. Their rights as women and their right to a name and identity are questioned. Yet women are the link between the Afghanistan of today and the Afghanistan of tomorrow.

With so much at stake, I asked Sweeta, “What more can we be doing to protect women’s rights and security in the future?”

Her answer was simple: “We need to train men.” I couldn’t agree more.

To find out why we need men as allies and how Afghan women start businesses despite gender restrictions, check out my blog post at WfWI’s Notes from the Field blog.

Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Afghanistan by visiting