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Unique Helpline for Women in Need in Pakistan

The helpline was developed by Meraj Humayun Khan, a 70-year-old parliamentarian who has taken on her male colleagues to organize a women's caucus in the provincial parliament

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Pakistani lawyer Shandana Naeem, right, listens to a caller with her colleague Nayab Hassan at their office in Peshawar, March 28, 2017. VOA
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When Durdana married for a second time and to a man of her own choosing, her parents threatened to kill her if she tried to see her new husband. They imprisoned her in their home, but she still had her mobile phone and had learned that a helpline for women had been set up. She noted the number and then one day when she was alone in the house, she called.

Nayab Hassan was on the other end. She had been trained how to answer the call. “Be gentle. Listen. Let them speak. Let them tell you what they want. Sometimes they are very emotional,” she said at the helpline center — located in the sprawling provincial parliament buildings in Pakistan’s deeply conservative Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, where tribal councils still hand over young girls to settle disputes.

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Not far from the border with neighboring Afghanistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa became the first province in Pakistan to set up a hotline for women that feeds directly into the provincial legislature.

It’s still a small operation. It began March 1 and so far there are only two operators, Hassan and Mehran Akbar. They take the information from the women and Shandana Naeem, a lawyer, follows up with advice and a network of free legal services.

They keep a careful log of all their calls, which average one a day so far, and while most have emanated from the provincial capital of Peshawar, several have come from more remote regions.

Durdana’s call was from Swat, a picturesque mountain region of clear blue lakes that ramble through valleys surrounded by imposing peaks. The area’s beauty is a stark contrast to its dark and violent history. It was in Swat where Pakistan’s Taliban briefly ruled, beheading police in the town square and where Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for advocating girls’ education and criticizing the violent religious radicals as being frightened of female education.

The log book is carefully kept. It records names, dates, phone numbers and then their stories. Some are horrifying.

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One woman, Aneesa, called to say that two years earlier her husband had thrown acid at her, stole her money and jewelry and fled to Saudi Arabia. She had moved in with her parents and now her eyesight was deteriorating from the acid attack; she needed medical assistance but had no money to pay for it.

Naeem said they helped her work through the red tape of getting a health card – the first step to health care. But Aneesa’s call also made them realize the need to engage local health clinics and develop a network that would be willing to offer free health care, similar to their legal service network.

Naeem said most of the calls have been over property disputes, where women were being denied their inheritance.

The helpline was developed by Meraj Humayun Khan, a 70-year-old parliamentarian who has taken on her male colleagues to organize a women’s caucus in the provincial parliament. With the weight of the 22-member caucus behind her, Khan lobbied for the direct helpline to the legislature.

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“We need to be in touch with their issues,” she said in an interview. “I can have a lot of ideas but it should come from them.”

The original call that prompted the helpline was a property dispute, said Khan, explaining that Pakistan’s inheritance laws — based on Islamic injunctions — allow male relatives priority and give a lesser share to women. And those women are often denied or intimidated by male relatives to forfeit even that lesser share.

The reason for locating the helpline in the provincial parliament was to collect data from women that would in turn bolster arguments for legislative changes. Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province is already behind on women’s right issues; lawmakers there have so far refused to pass an anti-domestic violence law that other provinces have approved.

Hard-line religious parties hold significant sway in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan (whose madrassas or religious schools were favored by Afghanistan’s Taliban) are partners in the provincial coalition government.

The 22 women in the provincial parliament are there on quota seats reserved for women. No female candidate has been able to win a general election seat in the deeply conservative and tribal-dominated province.

Khan says she plans to run on a general seat in the 2018 elections, but she admits even those men who have championed and endorsed her candidacy have been met with skepticism and resistance.

“Everyone they talk to asks ‘That’s all well and good, but don’t you have any men who can run?”‘ she said. “It’s a humiliation for them to be represented by a woman. They think women don’t know anything about politics, about economics.”

The chairperson of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, Zohra Yusuf, says different provinces are making progress on women’s issues at different paces. Southern Sindh is Pakistan’s most progressive province in terms of laws to safeguard women, she said. Earlier this month the most populous province, Punjab, opened state-of-the-art shelters for women facing abuse at home.

Last year Pakistan passed a bill that essentially closed a loophole which used to allow so-called honor killers to escape punishment.

Yusuf said that despite the legislative progress, on-the-ground enforcement of these new laws still remains a significant hurdle.

“I think the governments are realizing it’s about time something needs to be done,” she said in a telephone interview. “Laws were passed last year, the honor killing bill, rape, violence against women, but still it is about enforcement.”

In Pakistan it is difficult to even get the police to register a case of domestic violence, said Khan, who explained they often see it as a private family issue.

Durdana in Swat, whose family threatened to kill her if she met her husband of choice, was told to go to the police station and charge her parents with unlawful confinement or tell her husband to go to police to demand he be allowed to see her, said Naeem, the helpline lawyer.

That was March 6. Naeem has tried repeatedly to telephone Durdana on the number she gave but it is either turned off or rings unanswered. The dilemma, she says, when giving advice is that there is no way to know whether the police, for example, will help the women or hand them back to the family they are fleeing.

“We have to get the police, the justice system, the many government departments, on our side, working with us,” said Khan the founder of the helpline. “While all government departments agreed… we now need them to make good on their promises.” (VOA)

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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

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Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

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Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)