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Pedal power versus patriarchy in Afghanistan

Women in Bamiyan province take to their bikes in a bid to defeat sexual and gender-based violence
, Peyvand Khorsandi
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Setting off in Bamiyan, capital of Afghanistan's eponymous province. Photo: WFP/Fezeh Hosseini

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that the World Food Programme empowers women in Afghanistan by providing them with cash and vocational training in addition to food and nutritional assistance.

A cycling race, however— isn't that a little off-track for WFP? "Not at all," says Fezeh Hosseini, the organization's Programme Policy Officer for Gender Equality in the country.

According to the Women, Peace and Security Index, Afghanistan is second only to Yemen as the worst country in which to be a woman. In addition to extreme weather such as last year's drought and this year's flash floods, women face another immense hurdle: patriarchy enshrined in law.

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The race ends at the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Photo: WFP/Fezeh Hosseini

"We provided the female cycling team of Bamyan with brand new bikes and sportswear to participate in this campaign and say no to gender-based violence," says Hosseini. But how does that help, exactly?

"Afghan culture encourages women to stay indoors and avoid getting engaged in business or any other outdoor activities, including working outside the home," Hosseini explains. This makes women dependent on male members of the family and increases the chances of them being subjected to sexual and gender-based violence.

Such abuse, in turn, leads to food insecurity by disrupting women's roles in communities. It hinders their independence, mental health and ability to work, perpetuating the cycles of poverty that deny people access to nutritious food.

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The women belong to a cycling club — a rare thing in Afghanistan — and hope to inspire social activities among women and girls. Photo: WFP/Fezeh Hosseini

What's more, "Poverty and food insecurity exacerbate harmful practices including early marriage and domestic violence," says Hosseini. Marrying off under-age daughters serves as a coping mechanism for many poor families, she adds.

This half-day race was organised by WFP Afghanistan in coordination with the Department of Women's Affairs of Bamyan Province; 21 women aged 18 to 25 took part. Zipping through streets and villages of Bamyan, they sported orange in solidarity with the International Day for the Elimination Violence Against Women, on 25 November, and the UN's accompanying 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence.

The cyclists hope to raise awareness about gender-based violence and sexual abuse and to encourage families to allow their daughters engage in social activities such as sports, and to call on the Government to provide safe and harassment-free environments for women, says Hosseini.

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Orange is the colour of the UN's annual gender-awareness campaign. Photo: WFP/Fezeh Hosseini

Afghanistan, says Hosseini, is still emerging from "dark days for women" under the Taliban. "Women were banned from education, not able to work outside of the home or even go out without a male member of their family."

Each year, the 16 Days campaign has a theme — this year's was to stand against gender-based violence and rape, says Hosseini.

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The local governor's representative hands a prize to the winner. Photo: WFP/Fezeh Hosseini

In a tragic twist, rape is one area in law where there is equality for women in Afghanistan — "both victim and perpetrator are punished equally", says Hosseini. "[Today] critical parts of women's human rights — including issues like recognition of marital rape and some other globally recognized terms related to sexual and gender-based violence are being neglected in Afghanistan's penal code and family law."

While the Taliban are no longer in power, the country has little in the way of protection for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, due to "weak rule of law, corruption and insecurity", says Hosseini. "People are not safeguarded from abuse in areas that are out of Government's control. Women in particular are vulnerable to extrajudicial ‘justice' such as stonings and ‘honour' killings."

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WFP supplied bicycles and other gear for participants. Photo: WFP/Fezeh Hosseini

The cycling race culminated at the site where once sat colossal masterpieces of antiquity.

"The Buddha statues are a symbol of Afghanistan's history and heritage which was destroyed by the Taliban [in 2001]," says Hosseini . "A key part of Taliban ideology was denial of women's rights and freedom."

Even in mountainous Bamyan, however, the cyclists arguably face more uphill off their bikes than on.

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Despite security concerns, the UN stands ready to support women's rights in Afghanistan. Photo: WFP/Fezeh Hosseini

"We are still struggling to educate our young girls about very basic issues like health and hygiene during the menstruation periods," says Hosseini. "Just because it's shameful to talk about it."

That is why WFP Afghanistan has partnered with the UN Population Fund to to help provide better information and services on sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence, in addition to food and nutrition assistance, says Hosseini.

Then comes educating men about how women being educated, providing income-generating opportunities, receiving cash assistance and being financially independent is key to ending food insecurity (as well as an expression of human rights), says Hosseini. It's steep climb that with support — and sheer intention — these young cyclists can surely conquer.

Learn more about WFP's work in Afghanistan