They live in societies where violence against women not only takes place but is sometimes condoned. But a group of women from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is giving voice to their female compatriots by listening and then acting to defend women’s rights as conditions deteriorate and tensions rise. We hear about the fears and challenges facing women in conflict zones.


  • Hossai Wardak Women's rights advocate; Member, Women's Regional Network from Afghanistan
  • Kishwar Sultana Director, InsanFoundation Trust; Member, Women's Regional Network from Pakistan
  • Swarna Rajagopalan Founding Trustee, The Prajnya Trust; Member, Women's Regional Network from India


  • 13:28:13

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe story was so horrible it made headlines around the world. A pregnant woman was reportedly beaten to death in Pakistan last month by her own father and brothers for marrying against their wishes. The incident an extreme example of violence against women in a culture where women's rights are fragile and religious tradition runs deep.

  • 13:28:33

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAcross South Asia the lot of women can be perilous. On the one hand, they have increasing representation and democratic governments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and turn out in strong numbers to vote. At the same time, extremism and corruption can make it hard for their voices to be heard. A group of women's rights advocates from South Asia is in Washington this week to raise awareness of the threats facing women in their region at what they say is a crucial time.

  • 13:29:01

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to examine the challenges that are facing women in conflict zones is Hossai Wardak, women's rights advocate and a member of the Women's Regional Network from Afghanistan. Hossai Wardak, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:16

    MS. HOSSAI WARDAKThank you.

  • 13:29:17

    NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Kishwar Sultana, director of InsanFoundation Trust. She is a member of the Women's Regional Network from Pakistan. Kishwar Sultana, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:28


  • 13:29:29

    NNAMDIAnd Swarna Rajagopalan is an independent scholar and managing trustee for Prajnya, which she is a member of the Women's Regional Network from India. Swarna Rajagopalan, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:44

    MS. SWARNA RAJAGOPALANIt's a privilege.

  • 13:29:45

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to How do you feel women in conflict zones can make their voices heard in government and civil society, 800-433-8850? You can send email to Hossai, you're in Washington with other members of the Women's Regional Network that represents the voices of women in conflict zones. How did this group get started?

  • 13:30:14

    WARDAKI think the idea of working on the women's rights issues would go beyond an individual. And I think that was a time that it was realized that actually it goes beyond borders. And the idea was actually generated to say that what is it that women can do in conflict? And most of the times, you know, it happens that, you know, women are suppressed. So probably, you know, at times, you know, women would not be able to raise their voices from a certain country.

  • 13:30:39

    WARDAKAnd I think grouping and networking and coordination with women across the border would enable them actually to have the chances to pass on the issues. For instance, if I wouldn't be able to raise my voice from Afghanistan I would have somebody from India and from the region talking about me and the issues that I've been facing. And also the idea that there are commonalities when it comes to problems and challenges being faced.

  • 13:31:02

    WARDAKSo therefore, you know, women from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and even Bangladesh and Nepal at that time actually got together to say that, what is it that we can do to raise the voices and the concerns of women, not only specifically in our countries but as well in the region?

  • 13:31:19

    NNAMDIExplain how you surveyed women across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to find out the biggest concerns that they all share.

  • 13:31:27

    WARDAKThe idea that actually came in the initial meeting that the network had was, you know, a group of consultations that happened both nationally and at the regional level to say what are the common issues in all these countries, especially in three countries where the national research was conducted in terms of collecting women voices on particular issues around corruption, insecurity and as well as militarization of aid and development.

  • 13:31:52

    WARDAKObviously in Afghanistan with the insurgent attacks happening, in Pakistan where the peace talks with the insurgents over there and obviously in India around the certain issues which were happening in the certain zone. So these were the common issues. And obviously corruption was another thing threatening the region in general, not only specifically these countries. So these were the issues which were made altogether.

  • 13:32:12

    WARDAKAnd obviously the research that was done, there were ten common questions which were asked in all these three countries from women. But then obviously countries were also given the change to have some tailor-made questions where we're actually basically, you know, best (word?) the situation in each country.

  • 13:32:28

    NNAMDIKishwar, one of the biggest issues for women in conflict areas is safety and security. Can you tell us the story of the Hazara woman in Pakistan who told you her brother gave her a gun with instructions on when to use it. What did he tell her?

  • 13:32:44

    SULTANAYeah, actually she was a really young Hazara woman. And she was living with her two young sisters and mother. And she told me she was telling her story that she and her sisters and mother lives alone. So this is a kind of definition of a woman that no matter how many there are, but they consider them alone when there's no male member at home.

  • 13:33:15

    SULTANAShe said her brother works in the army and has to go to the front districts four months. So last time when he came to home he gave me the gun and asked me to sleep with that gun under your pillow. And when you see that someone has broken into the house, please kill your sisters and yourself. So this mean (sic) this is kind of insecurity the -- the definition of insecurity is inclusive of fear of being raped and being abducted. So her brother said that I can tolerate that you are no longer with us but I cannot tolerate that you are missing and someone has abducted you.

  • 13:34:08

    NNAMDIBecause there is a certain amount of, well, not only missing but if you are raped there is a certain stigma and shame associated with that that her brother also felt he could not tolerate?

  • 13:34:19

    SULTANAYeah, because in patriarchal cultures, women's bodies are the bearers of a male's honor. So if they are raped or they are accessed by a man or they are -- and because there are a lot of incidences that are there, we have not ever heard that any sister has killed her brother in the name of honor. So honor is there in the woman's body. That is male's honor.

  • 13:34:54

    NNAMDIAnd so he gave her...

  • 13:34:54

    SULTANAIf that is violated then...

  • 13:34:57

    NNAMDI...the gun to kill herself, her mother and her sisters.

  • 13:34:58

    SULTANAYeah, yeah.

  • 13:35:00

    NNAMDISwarna, here in the west we read alarming stories of gender-based violence. The two teenage girls who were killed in India when they went outside to relieve themselves because there was no facility in their home and the pregnant woman who was beaten to death by her father and brothers for marrying against their wishes, how common is this type of violence against women? And how are women's groups like yours trying to address it?

  • 13:35:23

    RAJAGOPALANHow common is a hard question to answer. I think you hear a great deal about these incidents now but it's not as if they have not been just as common or prevalent for decades and decades and decades. The women's movement in all our countries has been active against trying to get good laws, good implementation of laws against violence for decades because it is recognized that the problem is prevalent, common, has been for a long time.

  • 13:35:55

    RAJAGOPALANWhat's, I think, different now is that -- and some of this is good news -- is that reporting has become common. As we've come to recognize that this is a problem and not the natural cause of life. People are willing to report, as in file complaints to the police, but the media is also willing to pick it up. And as more people hear about these, the sense of outrage, the sense of disgust, revulsion grows. And so there's greater awareness and hopefully that means greater willingness to access laws. Because there's no point to having a great law on the books if nobody will file a complaint and follow through.

  • 13:36:33

    NNAMDIHossai, physical security is a big concern for women in conflict zones. How is the drawdown of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan affecting safety for women there and across the region?

  • 13:36:47

    WARDAKFrom the talks that actually we had and the conversation that we had with the women, one of the main concerns coming out were obviously around the drawdown of troops and the international community leaving Afghanistan. I think that was pretty much clear on the stories that women were telling us, and especially one of the girls who did not actually come to university and she left it halfway. And when we were questioning what is really happening, she was like, well why do I have to continue my education when the government and the international community is actually busy negotiating with Taliban and bringing them back to power?

  • 13:37:21

    WARDAKSo the physical security for women were extremely crucial. They said we are leaving our homes. We are not sure whether we will come back alive or not. Other than that are actually more threats to women in terms of raping them halfway, kidnapping them and killing and suicide attacks. So obviously women made tremendous progress when it comes to Afghanistan. And with obviously the support from the international community but definitely a slightest mistake of early leaving or departure from the country and leaving it unattended will definitely bring back the disasters. And it will shut off the entire development of progress that has been made so far.

  • 13:37:58

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're discussing women in conflict zones and inviting your calls. What can the international community do to promote women's rights in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, 800-433-8850? You can send email to Economic security is also a concern for many women. What are the financial hardships they face and how do those hardships affect their ability to feed their families and to maintain their households? I'll start with you this time, Swarna.

  • 13:38:30

    RAJAGOPALANI think one of the things that we've learned with these studies that we've done across the three countries is that militarization and insecurity and corruption feed off each other. And so, you know, as the military presence or the cause of a conflict weighs on in a particular place, ordinary functions, everyday functions from street lighting and maintenance to garbage collection to provision of health care, everything is affected by the presence of the military, which becomes like civilian agencies, more and more corrupt. And the civilian authority has absolutely no say.

  • 13:39:16

    RAJAGOPALANSo the person who pays the price for this is the woman whose mobilities are already restricted because she's not safe to go out. So one of the things we've learned is really that the impact of conflict on everyday life for women, which means access to health care, access to your livelihood, access to education, any life chances, access to information is hugely impaired by militarization much more for women also because to start with their mobilities diminished.

  • 13:39:47

    NNAMDISame question to you, Kishwar, especially when it comes to the militarization of aid, how does the shift to the aid distribution from nonprofits to the military affect women's lives?

  • 13:40:00

    SULTANAYeah, actually, we have to understand that -- what militarization of aid is. Military has its own values. This institution has its own way of working and methodologies and their perspective. And when we say that aid is being militarized, it means that when aid is being used as counterinsurgency strategies. In our countries, if we see that, one example, that it was -- it was news that because of the polio workers, Osama bin Laden has been captured from, the security forces were able to capture him, because these were the polio workers who has given the information.

  • 13:40:54

    SULTANASo this kind of news has caused a lot of impact on women that were there and they were school teachers and they were engaged in the polio teams that were earning from this -- from that job. But now they -- when these polio workers are being attacked now, they don't have that job. And there's a total fear. And just like in Afghanistan, when the aid -- the food and the grenades, they are packed in the wrappers that has the same color. And many of the people died because they think it was food, but it was a grenade.

  • 13:41:47

    SULTANASo I think that the -- when the civilian institutions, they are militarized, it means they are having military perspective and military strategies. So it has impacted women, because the aid, where to go, where not to go, it becomes a very political decision. So it has impacted a lot.

  • 13:42:14

    NNAMDICan you explain how some families live in limbo between the Taliban and the military? Why do some families with two boys say they have one son with a beard and one son without a beard?

  • 13:42:29

    SULTANAYes, actually, a woman in Savat, she said that when we are having the military operation in Savat, we were caught between the two forces. One is the state and one is the non-state actors, Taliban and the military. And she had two sons. One had beard and one has not. And every time they go outside, she has to live -- she has to wait in a very severe fear and anxiety. And this is the panic situation. And she get panic on this because when the son, one is checked by Taliban, that has -- the son that don't have beard is checked by Taliban that who he is and what he's doing here.

  • 13:43:25

    SULTANAAnd one with the beard is checked by the army that it might be, he might be the Taliban from the (word?) groups. So because they're of these state and nonstate actors, women have become more affected in Balochistan as well and in Savat. I can give you many...

  • 13:43:51

    NNAMDIThey have to practice strategic child rearing...

  • 13:43:53


  • 13:43:53 that situation. Yes. Care to comment on this issue at all, Hossai?

  • 13:43:58

    WARDAKWell I have two comments. Obviously, with regards to your first question of economic development and militarization of aid, I would start actually with militarization of aid. The military strategy to win the hearts and minds of people through their development and humanitarian work is absolutely inconsistent and it's not working. Not only it's not working, obviously, but it's creating a lot of people -- problems for the communities. School constructed by PRTs were very quick and very good. However, nobody was utilizing them because the next day they were getting burned down by the Taliban in the districts.

  • 13:44:30

    WARDAKAnd those who were actually utilizing them were actually either being killed, threatened or warned. So we can see that not only it's not going to help the communities, but as well it is being part of more of a chaos and a problem. Now, with economic development of the women, I think, first of all, in all these three countries, we have to do and have national strategies and perhaps regional strategies in order to value women's contribution into country's economy. Women has been doing a lot even when it comes to the conflict zones, just because they are not the ones bringing it and out selling it outside in the market, it's actually being calculated on the man's name.

  • 13:45:08

    WARDAKSo first of all, I think it's more important that we have to value women's economic contribution to a country's development here.

  • 13:45:16

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation. If you have calls, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850, to join this conversation on women in conflict zones. You can also go to our website,, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:47:28

    NNAMDIWelcome back. In the news, President Obama just delivered remarks in the White House briefing room this hour. He announced that we would be relocating existing U.S. staff within Iraq and expanding U.S. intelligence assets across the country. While he said that no combat troops would be going to Iraq, he announced that they would send equipment and military advisors to combat the Islamic militant group known as ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Here's what he had to say.

  • 13:47:57

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAThe United States will continue to increase our support to Iraqi security forces. We're prepared to create joint operation centers in Baghdad and Northern Iraq, to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL. Through our new counter-terrorism partnership fund, we're prepared to work with Congress to provide additional equipment. We have had advisors in Iraq through our Embassy, and we're prepared to send a small number of additional American military advisors, up to 300, to assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.

  • 13:48:36

    NNAMDIAgain, 300 military advisors, no ground troops. CNN and other media outlets had reported that the Pentagon was preparing plans for sending 100 special operation forces to Iraq. More information from NPR News as this story develops. Getting back to our conversation on women in conflict zones. We're talking with Hossai Wardak, women's right advocate and a member of the Women's Regional Network from Afghanistan. Kishwar Sultana is a director of InsanFoundation Trust, and she is a member of the Network from Pakistan. And Swarna Rajagopalan is an independent scholar and managing trustee of Prajnya. She is a member from India.

  • 13:49:15

    NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. I would like to go to Martha in Wallops Island, Va. Martha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:26

    MARTHAYes, hi. My comment is that I am glad that the guests are all women, because they can understand women's issues better. But my question is, is there anything being done to find maybe influential men in these regions who could publically support women and maybe influence the mode of thinking of other men? And secondly, is there any attempt of educating the males in these regions being done? Because women already feel that this is an injustice. So women are not the problem. It's the males who have to change their thinking.

  • 13:50:04

    NNAMDICare to respond to that?

  • 13:50:08

    RAJAGOPALANIn the work that we do...

  • 13:50:09

    NNAMDIThis is Swarna.

  • 13:50:11

    RAJAGOPALANIn the work we do -- this is not related to the Network -- but on the ground when we work on violence against women -- gender-based violence, rather -- we make a point of saying that this is a problem that pertains not just to women, but also to men. And that the prevalence of violence is a problem across society. Everybody's equally affected in different ways. Therefore, when we program awareness or training activities, we're constantly looking for ways in which we can involve men. We have male volunteers in all of our movements. We have male trainers.

  • 13:50:50

    RAJAGOPALANWe've had campaigns across the region -- I know several where we've encouraged prominent men to publically take a position that we put on You-Tube or...

  • 13:50:59

    NNAMDIWhat effect has it had? You're a political scientist. You've worked for a long time on these issues. How have rights for women changed in recent years? And how have public attitudes about women changed?

  • 13:51:10

    RAJAGOPALANRights, I think we've -- in speaking for India, I think we've had rights and laws in place for a long time. What we haven't had is the willingness to acknowledge the problem and a willingness to take measures to seek remedies for it. What has changed since December 2012, after the gruesome gang rape that happened in Delhi, is that we no longer have to sell the idea that there is a problem. I think denial is almost at an end. People acknowledge that the problem is widespread across sectors and that something needs to be done. And therefore engaging men and others in this battle has become easier.

  • 13:51:49


  • 13:51:51

    SULTANAYeah, I think it's important that males should be involved in all the struggle that we have. This is not because they are the culprits, that is -- that usually would think. It's important that they, as an active actor of the struggle, they support us. And in the conflicts, we are not saying that these are only women that are being raped. If we see in DRC, there are men who were also raped. So this sexual violence, this is not -- this is a kind of war tool. And the male, as well, that have not become -- that not fulfill the criteria of the society as being male that is chauvinist, that is strong, having good muscles is also considered a weak male, member of the society.

  • 13:52:54

    SULTANASo I think this is a kind of power relations that we have to change. And we have to engage them as policy makers with us. And we don't want that women -- our demand is that women should be there on the peace table and peace processes at every level. But males should also understand our perspective. That because this is a human perspective, not only a women's perspective.

  • 13:53:24

    NNAMDIHossai, a common concern among women in conflict zones is that their rights are the first thing to be bargained away during peace talks. Can you talk about that and maybe give us an example?

  • 13:53:34

    WARDAKIt mostly happens actually. And I think, you know, we have a tremendous amount of, you know, examples which are coming in in different countries, if we look at it. Obviously, one of the points which has been really part of the negotiation when it comes with the Taliban in Afghanistan have always been that, how can we, you know, restrict the mobility of women? How they have to clothe. And there is in discussion, which has really been happening in the country, is -- is women allowed to travel alone without their maharam.

  • 13:53:59

    WARDAKAnd that's a very serious issue, especially when they are actually obtaining passports, they're being asked to have their maharam to come with them so that they would allow to have a passport. So I think, you know, when you do not have women, you know, telling what exactly their needs are, that is a very easy and soft target for the governments and for the parties who are involved in negotiations to say that, well these are only women's issues, so we can, you know, convince them it's absolutely okay with them to lose something. But why should we, you know, demolish the entire process just because we think that the women should not be allowed to travel alone.

  • 13:54:32

    NNAMDIHere is John in Salisbury, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:36

    JOHNYes. My question actually is along those lines. Specifically, although there are a lot of cultural reasons, what percentage do you think is of violence against women are, like this honor-killing example you brought up, are due to Islam? And what do you think can be done to combat the mindset that may be that this is a religious duty, if the family's honor is at stake?

  • 13:55:11

    NNAMDIWell, I suspect that might be more cultural than religious, because the majority of the population in India happens to be Hindu. But I'll let Kishwar respond, since the majority of the population in Pakistan happens to be Muslim.

  • 13:55:24

    SULTANAYeah, John, thank you very much. This is a very pertinent question. And as we think, this is more cultural than religious. It prevails in all cultures. And this is kind of related to women's subordination throughout the historical process. As -- and it is said to be, and this is well researched and the women's movement have a lot of research on this, that it is related to the private-property concept and the women's sexual control on women's sexuality. So this prevails in every culture.

  • 13:56:07

    SULTANAIf we see in Pakistan there are different -- we, within Pakistan, have subcultures. So honor killing is everywhere and in every culture. And recently, if we see the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's reports, this is about 1,000 women that has been killed in one year. And this, over 63 women were killed because they have given birth to a woman or a baby, a girl. So I think this is a kind of subordination and the status of women in society.

  • 13:56:45

    NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, we only have about a minute and a half left. But I wanted Barbara in Arlington, Va., to get her question in. Barbara, you're on the air with very little time. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:56:54

    BARBARAOh, I'm sorry. I want to thank you, Kojo, for being an ally. And I'm going to use this program in my Gender and Peace-Building Class. And to the courageous women on your program, thank you. Thank you for your leadership. I think we need to acknowledge that no matter where we go in the world, women are subordinate to men. It is simply not a function of your culture. We have this problem worldwide. But I do think that you have a very proud history in your countries of nonviolence, of Shanti Sena, of peace brigades, of peace education, of Afra Khan (sp?) and Gandhi.

  • 13:57:30

    NNAMDIWell, we're just about out of time, Barbara. But I'm sure all of your comments are well appreciated. In 30 seconds, you're here in Washington to meet the government officials. What is your message to them, Hossai?

  • 13:57:41

    WARDAKI have a very clear message. Let's not make strategies and programs and classify the terrorist groups by good Talib (sp?) , bad Talib, good terrorist, bad terrorist. And that is going to affect us very deeply, badly on the ground. And not only us, but obviously that would end up wasting the resources that we have actually contributing and living in these countries.

  • 13:58:01

    NNAMDIHossai Wardak, she's a women's rights advocate, member of the Women's Regional Network from Afghanistan. Kishwar Sultana is director of the InsanFoundation. She's a member of the Network from Pakistan. And Swarna Rajagopalan is an independent scholar and managing trustee of Prajnya. She's a member of the Network from India. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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