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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times