Amina Azimi — Raising the Voices of the Disabled in Afghanistan
Amina Azimi was a young girl when she lost her right leg from a rocket propelled grenade that landed near her home in Kabul. Her family took good care of her but didn’t want her to leave the house as they feared for her safety, and Amina was frustrated by the inactivity. Eventually, her mother helped her return to school but the teachers wouldn’t let her play with the other children.
In the community, people would say things like, “Death is better than being in this situation.”
“When this happened to me and I became disabled, my hopes were almost gone by looking at myself and other people’s negative reactions,” Amina said in a recent interview. “I had to let my hopes go — I could not do what I had been planning to accomplish.”
Amina’s reaction was not surprising considering the condition for people with disabilities in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world and difficult even for non-disabled people.
There are an estimated 1.5 million people with disabilities in Afghanistan. The 2006 National Disability Survey in Afghanistan (NDSA) reported that, based on an estimated population of 25 million people, there are more than 800,000 persons with severe disabilities in Afghanistan, of whom approximately 17% are war disabled.
On average, one household in every five has a family member with a disability.
Although Afghanistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and has its own law — Law on Rights and Privileges of Persons with Disabilities, in practice, people with disabilities are often discriminated against in education and employment, as well as socially.
NDSA found that 53% of men with disabilities over the age of 15 years are unemployed compared to 25% of non-disabled men. (The unemployment rate for women is very high — 95%). The NDSA also found that almost 73% of persons with disabilities above 6 years of age did not receive any education versus 51% for people without disability.
When Amina went to look for work, she was asked, ‘Why are you seeking work, when those who are without disabilities are jobless?”
She finally did find a job working as a secretary for Nafeesa Sultani, a woman with a disability who focuses on disabled women’s issues, especially employment, and is now the representative in the Afghanistan Parliament for people with disabilities.
In 2007, Amina started the Women with Disabilities Advocacy Committee, where she worked as peer counselor and provided counseling to hundreds of women and girls with disabilities, most of whom had remained hidden in their homes for years. In 2011, she created Empowering Women with Disabilities (EWD), which provides training to women and girls with disabilities and their families.
Reaching out to others through radio
In 2011, only 32% of the total adult population and 18% of women in Afghanistan could read and write. With the Internet penetration at 21%, radio is the medium through which most people get news and information.
During her time working with Sultani, Amina became involved as a presenter for a radio program, Qahir-e-Qahraman (“Qahir the Champion”), on disability issues started by UNDP’s National Programme for Action on Disability and later supported by the UN Mine Action Center for Afghanistan and Internews.
“The main focus of all the programs was to inform the public that people with disabilities are not weak,” said Amina of Qahir-e-Qahraman. “They are active members of society and should be treated like everyone else. Disability is not weakness.”
The program often featured disabled people who were working or had their own businesses to serve as role models for the disabled listeners.
“We always received good feedback from the listeners,” said Amina. “I talked to one woman who said that before listening to the program, she didn’t know that the Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled existed. She was happy that there was a place she could go to get assistance.”
Eventually, the program became part of Internews’ radio program production network Salam Watandar. Internews trained Amina in journalism skills and with two other disabled journalists, the team produced close to 300 weekly programs. The programs focused on news, drama and advice by and for people with disabilities and were produced and aired nationwide.
“It is the voice of the disabled community,” senior producer Haji Nader told Internews in 2011. He had lost an arm in a rocket explosion 30 years ago while fighting the Soviets as a member of the Mujahedin. “We receive dozens of phone calls every week from people around the country thanking us for the information we give them.”
One caller, Majid from Ghazni province, lost both legs in a mine explosion two years before. For more than a year following surgery at a local hospital, Majid stayed inside his house in his village, sinking into depression. He rarely left his home during the first year after the accident because he was afraid people would mock him.
Then he heard Qahir-I Qahraman on Radio Ghaznawian, one of more than 40 local stations that air Salam Watandar’s national programming. Over the following weeks, Majid listened to several more shows and learned about local disabled people learning new skills at a training and employment center set up by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.
Majid visited the center and enrolled in a tailoring class. After completing the course, he took a job as an assistant tailor at a local tailoring shop. Soon he opened his own shop, earning 800 to 1000 Afghanis a day, the equivalent of $16 to $20, well above the national per capita income.
“After I announced my personal mobile number on the show a couple of months ago, Majid immediately called to thank me and my colleagues for changing his life,” Haji Nader said.
“Six years ago, the disabled community decided that we should be given a chance to tell our story. And that’s what we’ll keep doing,” Haji said in a 2011 interview with USA Today.
Unfortunately, funding for the radio program was cut. For awhile, the journalists produced the show with their own time and expense but currently the program is no longer on the air.
Amina would like to get back into journalism and to provide information for people with disabilities, especially those in rural areas.
“I would like to go to far-away provinces to meet with disabled people who have been isolated to inform them of their rights and what services are available to them.”
Today, she is waiting for the security situation to improve in Afghanistan and for funding to become available to produce more radio programming.
Amina now works as the project manager for the Afghan Landmine Survivors’ Organization (ALSO), spending her time supporting disabled people who survived injury from remnants of conflict, such as landmines and cluster munitions. She continues to work with other women with disabilities both in Afghanistan and internationally, particularly in other Asian countries.
As for her personal journey, Amina says, “Looking back I see a big difference. I’m happy and proud of all my accomplishments.”
Internews began working in Afghanistan in 2002, when the country’s independent media was virtually nonexistent. Today, Afghan media institutions are empowering civil society, exposing corruption, and inspiring a new generation of journalists to use information as a vehicle for change. Thanks to my Internews colleague Ajmal Ajmal for his help translating Amina’s interview.