Why the UK needs to help deliver on women’s rights in Afghanistan

Caroline Wright tells the story of a fellow gynaecologist, “Dr D”, an Afghan health professional who has experienced death threats and attacks on her family in Afghanistan.

When I was asked if I wanted to be involved in a short film about women’s rights in Afghanistan for Amnesty, I absolutely leapt at the chance. Although the prospect of being filmed was slightly daunting - I have absolutely no TV or film experience - Amnesty’s campaign is something I could immediately relate to, both as a doctor and as a woman.

I have never met Doctor D, the Afghan gynaecologist whose tale I told, but I know by her story that we have a lot in common.

I know that we are both passionate about a woman’s right to access healthcare. In the UK we’re incredibly fortunate. Everybody is able to access high-quality healthcare, something we often take for granted. As women we’re able to make choices about our health, about contraception and pregnancy. If we’re expecting a baby, we know that in the vast majority of cases we, and our unborn babies, will make it safely through labour and delivery. In much of the developing world, this is often not the case. Through my work I’ve travelled to teach medical skills in Asia and Africa and have been stunned by the challenges faced by those trying to provide healthcare to women. Where care is needed most, it always seems to be least available. Sadly I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan, but Doctor D’s story tells me that healthcare is not just absent in many cases in Afghanistan, it is actively prevented by threats and violence. I admire Doctor D’s passion for steadfastly continuing with her much-needed work despite the personal horrors she’s had to face.

Doctor D and myself have much in common. Like me she went to medical school, she worked hard, she passed her exams. She took on a life role that gives you an extraordinary gift. You have the skills and knowledge to stop pain and relieve suffering, to help and to heal. Placed in the position we both are, I understand why it’s not possible for her to turn her back despite the dangers. Whatever the cost, we have a duty to help. The cost for me might be long hours, endless exams, missed birthdays and weddings and never having a lunch break! But I’ve never had to face threats, attacks on my family or paralysing fear. The costs for me are so laughable in comparison and make me realise how fortunate I am to do the job that I love and not be targeted in any way for it.

In the course of Doctor D’s work she’s looked into the eyes of a girl who has been raped and seen nothing but bleakness and fear. When I worked as a forensic physician my role was similarly to treat women and girls who had been raped. Like myself, Doctor D has sought to help them, to encourage them to stay positive, to let them know that with time the pain would fade and they would eventually start to feel normal again. So we’ve taken on very similar roles, yet in many ways Doctor D and myself are worlds apart: I’ve received praise for my work, she’s had death threats.

I know that Doctor D is someone who has a strong work ethic. My own mother was a working mum, bringing up myself and my three sisters as well as doing a full-time job. I’ve always known that life is not handed to you on a plate. Doctor D inspires me as strong woman balancing work and family in the toughest of circumstances. When we hear so many negative stories about Afghanistan she’s a beacon of light, a positive role model for women across the world and a fantastic source of inspiration for her own children. I know she loves her children and family dearly and when I read her words I felt some of the pain she must have felt when her son was injured and her brother killed. Yet she goes on. I deeply admire her strength and her courage.

I don’t know why some of us are fortunate enough to be born into a life where we’re safe and free, while others are given a different, far harder path. From telling this story I know that Doctor D has seen and felt many of the same things as myself. And as a doctor, as a woman, but most fundamentally as a fellow human being, I know there’s something that I can do to help to bring change. There’s something we all can do.

Dr Caroline Wright is a gynaecologist at the Epsom General Hospital in Surrey

  • To support women’s rights in Afghanistan - including the provision of shelters for women and girls raped in Afghanistan - see this page
  • Amnesty is also running a “contact your MP” campaign on women’s rights in Afghanistan. See this page for more details


Dr Caroline Wright is a gynaecologist at the Epsom General Hospital in Surrey

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.