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A National Society in transition

by Helge Kvam

Following more than 20 years of conflict, Afghanistan is now in a difficult period of transition affecting all segments of the population, including the Afghan Red Crescent Society.

Last year, the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) launched a new mine awareness activity. Specifically targeting women, volunteers provide awareness sessions in the areas most heavily contaminated with mines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). It is not that the trainers teach the women anything different from what they teach the men. The difference is that they are all women — and so are the participants. This activity does not only reflect the fact that it is now possible for women to work and perform the training and generally to go out more. It is first and foremost a response to a newly identified need. Since the women move more freely, they have also become more vulnerable to accidents caused by remnants of the years of conflict. According to data from the ICRC, women represent an increasing percentage of mine victims in Afghanistan.

"Many women would not participate [in the mine awareness sessions] if they had to be trained by or with men. They simply would not feel comfortable," said one of the ARCS trainers, Lida Salamzay, adding that in addition the children benefit from the knowledge of their mothers. "Traditionally it is the women who take care of the children and what they learn here they will pass on to their kids." Supported by the ICRC, the organization today has 11 female trainers.

Afghan Red Crescent Society headquarters in Kabul.
©Michael Kleiner / ICRC

Major challenges

The newly-launched awareness teams are only one of several examples of the new demands being placed upon the ARCS. The National Society has a long history of assisting people in one of the most war-torn countries in the world. One of its main activities is the running of 57 health clinics, including eight mobile clinics, throughout Afghanistan. This life-saving network seves two million people each year.

The years of conflict saw the rise and fall of several governments. These changes have been mirrored in the ARCS, as the government has traditionally appointed the top management of the organization. Head of dissemination and public relations for the ARCS since 1993, Abdurrasheed Mukhlis is one of the exceptions. During the past several years, he has had the duty of raising awareness of humanitarian law and the principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Afghanistan. "I wouldn't say that we have succeeded one hundred per cent. But I do believe that despite difficulties we have managed to assist some of the most vulnerable people of this war-torn country in a fair way."

In order to ensure the commitment of the ARCS leadership to neutrality and impartiality in spite of their turnover with the changes in governments, he has organized internal seminars focusing on humanitarian law and the Fundamental Principles. Meanwhile, the ICRC has been able to assist victims of war in Afghanistan, managing to gain access to those on all sides of the conflict, and has maintained constructive working relation with the different governments and opposition groups in the country.

Ethnic diversity

In the presidential office of the ARCS, the current secretary general and president, Alhaj Qrabig Izidyar — like most of his predecessors he was appointed by the government — says he is concerned not only that his organization should work in a neutral and impartial way, but also with ensuring that the institution is perceived as serving all Afghans whatever their ethnic background. This means that Mr. Qrabiq not only has to appoint qualified staff members, but he also needs to make sure that National Society staff mirror the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan.

Even though years of internal conflict and the international strike against the Taliban government are over, Afghanistan still faces conflict in some areas with the current authorities and US-led coalition forces on one hand and various opposition groups on the other. While conditions are improving in many parts of the country, security is deteriorating in others. Aid workers have been murdered — in March an ICRC delegate was killed north of Kandahar and two members of the ARCS shared the same tragic fate in August.

The president of the ARCS underlines the importance of the work of the 32 local branches, as they are closest to those most in need — not least in the areas where security is a major concern. Here it is important that they be part of the local community and are seen as such.

With widespread poverty, a high unemployment rate and tens of thousands of refugees returning with nowhere to live, there will be enough to do for the ARCS in the years to come.

Mine awareness session carried out by the Afghan Red Crescent Society health centre in district 7, Kabul.
©Farzana Wahidy / ICRC

The future of the country

Afghanistan is moving toward reconstruction and reconciliation — a process in which the National Society is committed to play a role. More and more, the Afghan youth are becoming involved in ARCS activities. Supported by the International Federation, the ARCS has a humanitarian values programme which aims at disseminating the Fundamental Principles to young volunteers. The head of the youth department of the ARCS, Merajuddin Zahir, puts this in practical terms: "It is important that we have groups of youngsters with different ethnic backgrounds. They learn first aid, they are trained in emergency response, and they are being brought closer to each other. Instead of enemies fighting each other they become friends," he said, adding that, given the violent history of Afghanistan, activities like these are where the ARCS can play a role in reconciliation through the dissemination of humanitarian values.

The youth department has a long history, but during the years of conflict hardly any activities took place. Lack of experience is one of the challenges acknowledged by the youth manager, but involving the young is an essential part of most future plans. As Zahir explains, "Floods, earthquakes and other disasters are frequent, also in more remote areas. To efficiently help the victims in the future, such training is essential among youngsters. They are the future of our country."

Helge Kvam
Helge Kvam is ICRC communication delegate in Afghanistan.


An essential work

Some of the main activities of the ARCS are:
• Running 57 health clinics including eight mobile clinics.
• Providing community-based first aid in 23 provinces with the help of over 14,000 volunteers.
• Maintaining five shelters for homeless people in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.
• Offering vocational training, including income-generating projects — many of them specifically targeting women — such as bakeries, carpet weaving and tailoring, enabling people to have their own income.
• Running mine awareness sessions with 34 trainers, including 11 female trainers targeting women in particular.
• Offering first aid training and sports activities for youth volunteers.


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