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

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.