A professional woman's relentless pursuit to give rural women a voice
Rural women play a crucial role in their families and communities, despite the limited resources they rely upon
Karima Sorkhabi, FAO Gender and Social Development Specialist for the western region of Afghanistan, shares glimpses of her journey over the last half a year; from uncertainty and frustration to her return to office to chase her dream of improving women’s lives in her country.
The work of a woman as gender specialist might not be understood or even supported by many people in Afghanistan. But that was precisely what inspired me to step forward and prepare this personal account of my experiences. When I took up the challenge of working as gender specialist for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2020, I immediately realized that mainstreaming gender into our programming, and subsequently into our culture, would not be an easy job. It would require massive efforts, careful attention, substantial interventions and lots of support, especially from colleagues and managers. However, I was determined to do my bit to pave the way for society to treat women equally and with the highest respect, regardless of gender.
I was not alone in this. Together with FAO colleagues, and humanitarian professionals from UN, NGOs and INGOs, we are all working to achieve the same goal: Gender equality, SDG 5. This will be achieved when women and men, boys and girls have equal rights, conditions and opportunities. Equal rights to access services and power; and equal rights to shape their own lives and contribute to the development of their society. FAO’s work is so important in this regard: supporting Afghanistan’s rural women and men to make their agriculture-based livelihoods more resilient, boost food production and better mitigate (and adapt) the impacts of climate change. Gender equality will really help drive further progress in these areas.
Rural women, key players for social change
I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to build a close connection with rural women through my job at FAO. I listen to them very carefully so that I can echo their voice and help FAO better adjust its assistance to their needs. I am truly grateful to FAO for this opportunity that allows me to dedicate my life to helping vulnerable rural women.
I have met many female farmers who play, day in day out, a crucial role in their families and communities, despite the limited resources they rely upon. Since I started my job, I have been so impressed by the positive impact they have in terms of achieving sustainable livelihoods. Indeed, women can bring about so many of the economic, environmental and social changes needed today. And tomorrow.
Relocation and political transition
Last year I was relocated from Herat to Kabul a few weeks before the city was taken over by the current de facto authorities. I was really afraid about my personal future as a woman. These worries grew exponentially as soon as I received the news of the political transition while I was at the FAO office in Kabul last 15 August.
During the first couple of weeks, there were rumours that the new de facto authorities would be going door-to-door identifying women who have working experience with international organizations. Some rumours said that women would not be able to go out without a mahram [a male relative that must accompany a woman when she is outside her family home]; others said they could no longer work or study, and so on. At that time, it was difficult to choose whom to trust.
Despite the chaotic, totally unimagined and, at times, tough situation, we were not left alone by the Organization. Daily meetings were organized to by the FAO Representative to keep all staff abreast of all and any developments. A well-being virtual training session was organized by our headquarters colleagues. All that support was very effective for me to cope with the situation.
I was nonetheless afraid that the new de facto authorities would marginalize women like me, who have been amplifying the voice of rural women.
All in all, the situation remained unclear, and I ended up stuck at home over four months because women were (and still are) not able to work in the provincial office of the Ministry of Agriculture, where our office sits. Although I knew that it wasn’t always easy for the Organization, I kept raising my voice in virtual meetings to bring women back to the office to resume our normal activity.
I did not lose focus, nor did I give up my relentless pursuit to raise rural women’s voice at any time. Despite some expected, I guess, highs and lows, most of the time I was optimistic and trusted that FAO would somehow manage to find a solution, as it eventually did. The continuous focus on FAO’s duty-of-care, in particular towards women, was comforting.
On 8 December 2021, me and my other wonderful female colleagues in Herat finally resumed our work from a different office, provided by another sister agency (as we still cannot return to our main FAO Office in the city). That day my dream of going back to office came true. However, as I entered the office, vivid memories came to my mind from the day back in July when we were instructed to leave the office immediately and head to our homes. A scary chill ran down my spine again as I recalled my first thought: “how will all of this affect my children?”
A new different opportunity
Now, a few months into the political transition, I try to look on the bright side to overcome the mountain of anguish, fear and uncertainty that has accumulated in recent months. My organization is providing me full support to carry out my work; and overall humanitarian access is safe and unrestricted, unlike the months leading up to August last year. In summary, I see an opportunity for me. And for FAO. I believe that I can continue striving for my vision of gender equality in Afghanistan, albeit with some caveats compared to what it used to be. I can continue helping women seize work opportunities outside their homes despite the culture, social norms and traditions.
There is still massive room to support rural women involved in dairy production, poultry farming or livestock rearing, among others. Even more so with governmental programmes suspended now. Women need extension training to improve their skills. Facilitating trainings is key as it helps the community understand and recognize the important role that women play in these activities. Training paves the way to make women overcome cultural limitations.
I am not naïve. There are still some restrictions, but I can visit women in remote districts, I can attend distributions of agricultural inputs like animal feed, seeds, cash and I can participate in training activities. As I have seen in my experience, FAO’s continued support to women in rural areas can be the spark to women’s empowerment; that little push they need to contribute to agricultural development on an equal foot than men.