Afghan women with their children go shopping in Fayzabad, Afghanistan.
Every 30 minutes in Afghanistan, a woman dies in childbirth. As well, one in three women experience physical, psychological or sexual abuse, and forced marriages are common.
Only about 30 per cent of Afghani girls have access to education and roughly 87 per cent of women are illiterate.
Even those numbers are a vast improvement over the "darkest time for women in Afghanistan" from 1996 to 2001, during the civil war when the Taliban took power over much of the country and rights disappeared, said Partawmina Hashemee, director of the Afghan Women's Resource Centre.
Life is difficult for women in Afghanistan, with widespread poverty, Hashemee told a Lenten supper at St. Anne Parish in Saskatoon that was hosted by the CWL.
The Afghan Women's Resource Centre is a partner organization of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) and Hashemee was a CCODP solidarity visitor during the Share Lent campaign.
Even with the Taliban removed from power, cultural barriers continue for women, she said. However, there was a great step forward in 2004 when the country received a new constitution that recognizes rights – rights for men and rights for women.
Women are now serving in parliament, a province has a woman as governor and one remote area even has a woman as mayor, she continued.
Now operating in six provinces of Afghanistan, the Afghan Women's Resource Centre uses a number of strategies to promote gender equality, improving education and livelihood for women, Hashemee said.
Established in 1989 in Pakistan as an outreach to Afghan women living as refugees, the Afghan Women's Resource Centre is dedicated to gender equality and the education and empowerment of women as a road to sustaining peace and promoting democracy, Hashemee said.
"We have a vision," she said of the organization that she helped to establish, "because in our culture women are seen as passive victims. We want to make them active agents of positive change in their community and nation."
One important role of the centre is to break through the isolation that many women experience in Afghan culture. "Women are able to get together to socialize here, and we provide them with services," she said.
"We believe education is the key to women's empowerment and self-sufficiency."
The centres offer home-based literacy programs for women, as well as kindergarten for children of very poor families, in which the mothers are engaged in vocational training or learn about nutritious food.
The centre also offers classes in journalism, to give women the capacity to raise their voice; classes in management, so that women can get involved in decision-making; as well as classes in computers and English, Hashemee listed.
"We also offer technical training," programs that will enhance the livelihood of women and their families – beekeeping, kitchen gardening, food processing, she added.
"How can we sustain peace and democracy if the community does not get involved?" asked Hashemee. "For this work we establish committees among those willing to be change makers in their community."
Civic education classes informing people of their responsibilities and rights under the new constitution are offered. "We believe that our work at the grassroots level is important if we want to change our country."
Advocacy is also important, Hashemee said. "Like this - we came here to share with you."
She expressed her fears about the international community's plan to leave Afghanistan next year. The Afghanistan government is not strong enough to stand alone, she said, adding that negotiations are going on with the Taliban.
She asked her listeners to encourage Canada to continue to play a role in supporting peace and democracy in Afghanistan. "We want you to raise your voice," she said. "We don't want the dark time back."
Armella Sonntag, Saskatchewan CCODP animator, said the Afghan Women's Resource Centre is one project supported by the CWL's "one per cent" program.
That program encourages members to donate the equivalent of one per cent of the cost of all personal luxury items purchased as well as donating one per cent of all funds raised in their parish councils to Development and Peace.
The one per cent donations go toward projects that empower women in helping one another in their struggle against poverty and injustice.