The abrupt withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, which resulted in the Taliban regaining control of the country after two decades, is inevitably having repercussions on the rights of women and children. TNF spoke to Nor Reza, founder of Kuala Lumpur-based NGO Roya Care Foundation, which aims to provide support and empower Afghan women refugees in Malaysia.
In the last few weeks, Nor’s phone has been buzzing more often than usual.
She has been receiving dozens of calls and texts from desperate Afghan women asking for nothing more than a chance to exist.
Nor knows their pain all too well.
As a cancer survivor and a single mother, she is fully aware of how difficult it is for a woman with no external support to secure her future and that of her children.
But with the return of the Taliban and the travel restrictions triggered by the pandemic, even someone like Nor, who never gives up, is starting to feel hopeless and powerless.
“The Afghan women I work with are begging me to help their relatives to move here. I told them I could arrange a visa for them, I could write the sponsorship letter, but the [Malaysian] borders are closed now. There is only little I can do,” she tells me.
She fears that traffickers and smugglers will exploit the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding before our eyes, charging exorbitant fees in exchange for promises of freedom that may never materialise.
“When people are desperate, they do whatever they can to get out,” she says.
Her contacts in Afghanistan told her that the Taliban have already started kidnapping women to use them as sex slaves and prohibiting them from leaving the house to go to school or work.
Many of the women Nor helps are single mothers. Some are unmarried, others lost their husbands during the bombings that took place over the twenty years of conflict, a few are in Malaysia with their spouses.
All of them spent approximately 2,000 US dollars each to get a visa that would allow them to flee Afghanistan, apply for refugee status in Malaysia − a transit country − and receive the coveted identity card from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which many view as a first step towards a brighter future in a Western nation, away from the misery and horrors of their war-torn country.
But the process to be permanently relocated to a third country could take months, if not years. Meanwhile, those holding refugee status are not allowed to work.
“Living costs in Malaysia are high, and these women do not receive any benefits from the UN or the Malaysian government,” Nor explains. “As a Malaysian, I only pay one US dollar to access a government hospital, but as a refugee, I pay ten times that amount. How can they support themselves?”
Before the pandemic, many took up jobs illegally, which made them vulnerable to exploitation, working as waitresses, cleaners, and shop assistants for a pittance. But with the country in lockdown for months and many businesses going bankrupt as a result, these women have been struggling to get by.
That’s when Nor, who juggles her self-funded charity work with her professional commitments as the owner of a trading and manufacturing business, comes to the rescue.
“I provide them with monthly food baskets with rice, eggs, potatoes, and other food staples, and have them delivered to their homes,” she says.
Each basket costs around 55 US dollars, but she manages to distribute a hundred of them through sponsorships from local suppliers.
“One of these women has a diabetic child. So, I give them special rice that would not raise his blood sugar,” Nor explains.
She also helps those who are sick by paying their hospital bills.
I ask her why these refugees reach out to her, rather than seeking help from major international NGOs. Her candid reply takes me aback.
“Because they turn them away,” she answers. “[These NGOs] get sponsors, private donations, funds from the embassies. But they are using only 10% of that money to support those in need. I know that because I saw it with my eyes. What they do with the rest of the money, it is not 100% clear,” she says.
Her charity also cooperates with Malaysia’s National Cancer Society, which helps her arrange smear tests for Afghan women.
“Most of these women do not know anything about female reproductive health,” she notes, adding, after a short pause: “But they are very keen to learn.”
Prior to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Nor would also organise regular events, including talks with doctors, socials, and baking classes to teach the refugees new skills.
What’s going to happen now? Nobody knows for sure.
What seems certain is that the current state of apparent calm is nothing more than a prelude to a much more sinister scenario, as far as the status of Afghan women in the new, Taliban-controlled society is concerned.
“Afghanis felt safer when the Americans were there. Now they tell me: ‘We don’t have a country anymore’,” Nor says.
She sounds very sceptical about the Taliban’s promises of respecting women’s rights, which she describes as mere propaganda.
“The Taliban are just trying to show the world they can be better than in the past, but the truth is that people are really scared. They want to run away. There is no bombing, but there is a climate of terror,” Nor says. “The fact that even the president of the country [Ashraf Ghani], who has plenty of security and everything, ran away, should tell you something. Not even in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, I have seen people so desperate to jump on a plane as Afghanis are now.” She carries on: “These people [The Taliban] do not represent Islam. Islam is not like that. Islam is about respecting women. It is about educating people.”
I ask her what she would say to people in the West who are watching these tragic events with a mix of disbelief and apprehension and feel powerless before them.
“I would tell them to welcome these refugees with open arms. Afghanis do not want to leave their country. They still love their country, but most of them are just trying to survive.”
She also has a message for Western governments, which she holds responsible for the current situation. “Just stop this nonsense. How many thousands of people have died because of this war? What for?”
Despite the challenges arising from the current global uncertainty, Nor is determined to continue to contribute to improving the life prospects of Afghan women.
She is planning to open a shelter that would accommodate between fifty and sixty single mothers, and provide them with free education, healthcare, and professional training in cooperation with the UN. “We want to prepare them for life in another country, help them to be independent, to create a business, to get jobs,” she points out.
“I will do whatever I can to help these people,” Nor says. “Some people do not want to be helped. But Afghan people do. They want to improve themselves, and they need our help.”