In poverty-stricken areas of easter Afghanistan, girls are too often the ones at risk. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
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Being a gynaecologist in Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world

A doctor in Afghanistan is using her medical training to provide healthcare and other support to women – at great risk to herself and her family.

 “When I started working, I would not help people when they came to me for an abortion. I would say no,” says Dr Lima, an Afghan gynaecologist who embarked upon the dangerous trade of offering desperate women secret access to contraception and abortion. Her decision was prompted by the sheer scale of suffering and violence against women she witnessed.

Her initial refusal was a predictable reaction in a country where abortions are illegal in the majority of circumstances, but in 2006 Dr Lima was confronted with a case that brought home the devastating scale of the hardships faced by Afghanistan’s women. It would change her mind on the need for access to safe abortion.

“The girl was 17 years old and pregnant. After her parents found out they secretly gave her some medicine to weaken her – medicine that made it easier for them to suffocate her with a pillow and kill her. After that incident, I decided to help people like her,” Dr Lima recalls.

Dr Lima’s decision – to start using her medical training to provide healthcare and other support to women – put her own and her family’s lives in constant danger.

“Whatever I do, I do in secret. The only person who knows is my husband,” she says.

Many of the women that Dr Lima has provided abortions to had become pregnant as a result of rape. She also helped women to take contraceptives secretly when their husbands were forcing them to have more children.

She explains: “That was risky too, sometimes when women did not become pregnant for some time the husbands would ask why and may beat their wives. Then the woman would bring them to me and I would explain to the husband that because his wife had too many children without a [break], her body is now weak and it needs times to return to normal. Then the husbands would accept my [explanation] and the women could stay healthy and enjoy their lives for one or two years before they got pregnant again.”

Dr Lima’s mission took her to eastern Afghanistan, to a remote, poverty-stricken province on the border with Pakistan. It is a region where the influence of the Taliban is at its strongest, and respect for women’s rights is almost non-existent.

Girls are not given access to education, husbands routinely abuse their wives and for many families the preferred response to a girl becoming pregnant outside marriage – even by rape – is to murder her and cover it up as an illness or accident.

In some areas tribal rules dictate that if the people in the community find out that a girl is pregnant outside marriage they will kill the girl in order to “preserve honour” and if the girl’s family resist, they too will be killed. If the rapist is identified, he and the victim will both be killed publicly.

One girl in a tribal region who became pregnant as a result of being raped came to Dr Lima to ask for an abortion. The girl told Dr Lima that the pregnancy served as a constant reminder of her ordeal. She was also terrified she would be killed and her family would be torn apart by a “blood feud”.  

Another woman, a mother of six, was locked up with the livestock by her husband, who had married another woman. “When she came to me I helped her to get in touch with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and after many months of legal arguments she finally managed to get a divorce.”

“No matter what a man does in these areas, he will get away with it,” says Dr Lima.

While working in Kunar, Dr Lima would wear a burqa to help protect her identity, but that didn’t stop the death threats from the Taliban.

“I started to receive warning letters, saying that what I was doing was un-Islamic,” Dr Lima says.

In 2009, the peril of Dr Lima’s courageous mission was brutally laid bare.

“My son was playing in the front garden of our home in the evening. I heard an explosion and rushed outside the yard to see my son covered in blood,” she recalls.

The 11-year-old boy had been the victim of a Taliban grenade attack to Dr Lima’s family home. Despite suffering a debilitating leg injury, he survived and is now able to walk with the aid of a stick.

But worse was to come six months later.

After receiving further threats and warnings from the Taliban, Dr Lima’s 22-year-old brother was killed in another grenade attack opposite her clinic.

She was forced to move to a secret location, but the experience did not dent Dr Lima’s commitment to help the women of Afghanistan. “I want to serve my country and my people who have suffered a lot. I cannot just sit in the corner of my house,” she says.

“My son was injured and my brother was killed as a result of my work, but I have never given up. These activities cannot be done without suffering. In Afghanistan, all women are suffering.”

Details of an Amnesty campaign calling for greater protection for professional Afghan women like Dr Lima are available at www.amnesty.org.uk/afghanistan

A pseudonym has been used to ensure the security of Dr Lima and her patients

Horia Mosadiq is Amnesty International’s researcher on Afghanistan.

Cate Gillon/Getty Images
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Why Britain’s Bangladeshis are so successful

In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.

No day is complete without fears about immigrants failing to integrate in Britain. Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups now seen to be a burden on society, poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.

A generation ago, much the same was said of the Bangladeshi community. Tower Hamlets, where the concentration of Bangladeshis is greatest, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998. Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.

Today the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62 per cent got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2015, five per cent above the average. The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particular spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to analysis of Department for Education figures.

Partly this is a story about London. If London’s schools have benefited from motivated Bangladeshi students, Bangladeshi pupils have also benefited from the attention given to the capital, and especially Tower Hamlets; 70 per cent of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital. But even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students “are doing very well”, and outperform Pakistani students, something that was not true in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.

The success of Bangladeshi girls, who outperformed boys by eight per cent in 2015, is particularly striking. Increased gender equality in Bangladesh – the gender pay gap fell 31 per cent from 1999-2009 – has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously, says Abdul Hannan, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.

The roots of the Bangladeshi population in Britain might be another factor in their success. The majority of Bangladeshis in the country hail from the city of Sylhet, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food. “Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90 per cent of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.

Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities”.

Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.

As Bangladeshis have become more successful, so younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that, “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition. 

Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Nine per cent of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found. It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.

But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan tells me that he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership”.

Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.