After a harrowing trip to Afghanistan, former Prime Minister Helen Clark is lending her voice to campaigns to support the country through a devastating drought and to strengthen women and children's rights.

She saw severely malnourished children, a 5-month-old baby weighing 2.8kg, and a woman whose 12-year-old daughter narrowly escaped being sold into a forced marriage.

She also met women empowered by their work at a women's market.

Speaking ahead of International Women's Day today, she called for the international community to step up to help the Afghani people.

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Visiting World Vision projects in western provinces of Afghanistan this week has been Clark's third trip to the country. The first was as Prime Minister in 2003 when she visited Kabul, and the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan Province. The second was in 2015 as head of the United Nations Development Programme.

Clark spoke to the Herald at the end of her trip to Afghanistan. Asked what had struck her most during this visit, she spoke first of the severe impact of the drought, "which in many ways has gone largely under the radar of the international community".

Helen Clark visited World Vision's pilot project with the Department of Religious Affairs to end child marriage and improve gender equality. Photo / World Vision
Helen Clark visited World Vision's pilot project with the Department of Religious Affairs to end child marriage and improve gender equality. Photo / World Vision

"The international community is not stepping up enough for those who have been affected by this drought."

Floods and snowfalls have killed more than 50 people in the past fortnight, mainly in southern provinces. Western areas have been suffering the effects of drought for nearly two years.

More than 250,000 people are living in makeshift tent camps on the outskirts of cities after losing their rural livelihoods to the drought. They would need help to re-establish their lives, Clark said.

But the dry conditions also compounded existing vulnerabilities, such as child marriage.
"For a family affected by drought, which has lost all its animals, lost its livelihood, is already in debt, then the likelihood of a girl, a young girl, being put into a forced marriage for a bride price increases."

When the women are together they are talking, they share experiences.

In a nexus of drought and poverty, girls got caught up "almost as collateral damage".

"We have spoken with families who have in the end made the decision not to accept money for a 12, 13-year-old girl to be a bride — but it can be a tough economic decision for them."

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The group meets regularly to discuss issues important to them and their communities, as well solutions. Photo / World Vision
The group meets regularly to discuss issues important to them and their communities, as well solutions. Photo / World Vision

World Vision works with Islamic religious leaders to enforce the Afghan Government's ban on child marriage, but says the desperate conditions have led to an escalation of the practice.

Clark described the tragic case of a 27-year-old mother of seven children who herself has a medical condition. Her 7-year-old son had a kidney removed for organ trafficking. Her absent husband is a drug user who had agreed to sell their 12-year-old daughter into marriage. But after talking with an imam, the mother didn't allow the sale to proceed, protecting her daughter.

A highlight of Clark's visit was the three-storey women's market set up in the main city of Badghis Province with World Vision's help. After the initial, smaller market was acknowledged by the Afghan President, he authorised spending and it grew to its current size, housing dozens of stalls run by women who previously were dependent on men to sell their products.

"[It] is revolutionary for the women in that area because they would have had trouble trading in another kind of market," Clark said. "But this is a safe space — so it's women's empowerment."

Helen Clark meets with Zerygul and her family. Zerygul's father is an opium addict and tried to sell her into an early marriage so he could afford to go to rehabilitation. Photo / World Vision
Helen Clark meets with Zerygul and her family. Zerygul's father is an opium addict and tried to sell her into an early marriage so he could afford to go to rehabilitation. Photo / World Vision

Some stitched and sold clothes and embroidery, some baked and sold food, others provided beauty therapy, make-up and hairstyles.

"When we spoke to the women they said having the market as a women's space was very important. It enables them to come out of their homes, to do the economic activity and they are in control of their product and the selling of it directly.

"So I thought this was really a fantastic economic development initiative for women and that's what Afghanistan needs more of.

Helen Clark spends time with a women's empowerment group in Afghanistan set up by World Vision. Photo / World Vision
Helen Clark spends time with a women's empowerment group in Afghanistan set up by World Vision. Photo / World Vision

"It needs investment in people's basic capacities to stand on their own feet ...

"When the women are together they are talking, they share experiences. We found that quite a lot of the women were the heads of households, or husbands had died, or husbands are just not there for a range of reasons, or they are incapacitated.

"So all of them have a lot of responsibility on them to be earning income and putting their children through school."

Clark spoke to one woman who was illiterate and had her 11-year-old daughter with her because school was not in that day.

"I asked the daughter what would you like to be. She said a doctor, so here is an illiterate woman making her living through selling clothing that she makes in the market and the daughter wants to be a doctor," she said.

"That is fantastic. It encourages that level of aspiration."

Clark said she would draw on what she saw and learned in Afghanistan to put the case for supporting the country and its people.

"Advocating for not walking away from Afghanistan, for the donor community, is very important."