Addressing gender-based violence among Afghan refugees
by Lynda Lim
Quetta, Pakistan: It was an unusual moment. I felt neither warmth nor cold, neither fear nor fatigue, felt disconnected from myself. The words of a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence kept ringing in my ear, “I do not want to talk to anyone, please leave me alone. If you keep coming to me, I will be killed by my community if they find out that I was raped. This will bring disgrace to my family ... I don’t need any external help”.
Promoting knowledge and positive attitudes and values to prevent sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), protect against harmful practices and support survivors is proceeding very slowly and carefully in Balochistan. Many forms of SGBV are extremely sensitive among the Afghan refugee community and it is taboo to discuss or address them publicly. Cases are rarely reported, so it is extremely difficult to gauge prevalence and to implement conventional prevention and response interventions.
Achieving UNHCR’s Five Commitments to Refugee Women and Girls calls for doubling efforts to revitalise SGBV prevention and responses to systematically address a range of barriers, particularly the socio-cultural climate that inhibits full participation of Afghan refugee women and girls in the protection of their rights.
As a Community Services Officer with UNHCR, my role is to address the broad protection needs of and risks faced by Afghan female-headed households and children who lack community support, and ensure that their rights to basic medical services, water and food are adequately addressed.
In this context, I was responsible for reviving a working group on SGBV that aims to enhance collaboration with international and national non-governmental organisations and government counterparts to devise strategies and mechanisms to promote multi-sectoral interventions in the prevention of and response to SGBV issues. When some Afghan refugee women who once hid their face beneath the burqa mustered the courage to talk about SGBV, I was filled with hope.
Balochistan, a province bordering on Iran and Afghanistan, is fraught by a volatile security situation, particularly in Quetta, a city surrounded by dark grey mountains and desert terrain. Therefore, my mobility is restricted to selected shopping areas that are closely guarded by the military. Every time I visit the refugee camps I am accompanied by an armed escort for security purposes.
Women are rarely seen on streets; let alone a foreign woman. I miss being able to move around freely without being accompanied by males or having to ensure that I am appropriately dressed in shalwar kameez and covered with a scarf.
The value of volunteerism enables me to share the vision of hope embodied by the Millennium Development Goals. My experience as a volunteer Community Services Officer, working in a difficult thematic area in a highly sensitive culture, has widened my perspective from the cross-cultural experience gained from my interaction with colleagues, NGOs, government counterparts and to some extent with the beneficiaries. My experience would not be complete without the support of my colleagues who have spiced up my life in Pakistan and given me a new hobby, a passion for the exotic Bokhara and Baluch carpets produced here.
Above all else, my volunteer experience has given me intense inner satisfaction, confirming my mission “against all hope, there is hope” for the marginalized. Furthermore, by becoming a UNV volunteer, I have had the opportunity to travel, live and contribute in places I never imagined in my wildest dreams.
The most significant life lesson I have learnt through this experience is to persist in achieving my dreams and appreciate the value of small victories in the midst of the overwhelming challenges. Never give up!
Lynda Lim, from Malaysia, is a UNV Community Services Officer and has been working with UNHCR in Quetta since 2006.
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