There was a time, not so long ago, when Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province was called "Little America." In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States made southern Afghanistan a showcase of nation building with a massive project to improve and irrigate the land and modernize the agriculture sector. Lashkar Gah was a major recipient of the program.
At the confluence of the Helmand and Arghandab rivers, Lashkar Gah's 8000 residents lived in suburban-style tract homes with sprawling lawns. The city boasted one of Afghanistan's finest hospitals and the country's only co-educational high school.
But today, this once modern Little America is more like a little prison, at least for Rubina and many other women like her.
With the Soviet invasion in 1979, everything changed. The hands of time moved backward at a frightening pace. Factories were destroyed, the economy ground to a halt. In the following years, Mujahideen and then the ruling Taliban imposed strict laws and even stricter punishments on women who did not obey their radical interpretations of Islam. Women who had worked in factories and attended school were confined to purdah, and typically not allowed to leave their homes.
Rubina was a child when this all happened - not even old enough to attend school. Her childhood memories are of struggle and oppression, not of tree-lined avenues and schoolyards.
According to Fauzia Aulomi, head of the Helmand Women's Association, not a single Afghan woman in all of Helmand is fluent in English today. "If they spoke English before, they have long since forgotten it," she sadly notes. After years of living in isolation and poverty, overwhelmed with the daily task of just keeping their families alive, drought and war have become their sole reality.
Rubina's story is set amid this dark backdrop. At the age of 22, she was engaged to be wed in an arranged marriage, but her fiance died before the wedding. The story, however, did not end there-- it just began. Under tribal customs, the family of the fiancé "owned" her upon her engagement and they would decide her fate. Traditional practice is to have the bride marry another son, uncle or man of the in-laws’ choosing. But the family has not chosen a husband for her, nor given up their right of ownership over her.
Seven years later, Rubina is still the property of her in-laws. Unable to marry without their permission, unable to leave her home, unable to even visit with a friend. For seven long years Rubina has swept the floors, cooked the food, washed the clothes, and sewed for money to feed her brothers and parents. For seven years she has not been allowed so much as to go to the market. For seven years she has been waiting for a chance to live her life.
"I have not had a friend in over two years," she says when asked what has been the most difficult. "My cousin was the only friend I was allowed to speak to and she moved to Holland with her family. It has been very lonely."
But this year, with the help of her brother, Rubina took a tremendous risk and ventured out in secret to attend a tailoring course at the Helmand Women’s Association. Her fear of being caught is so great she will not allow her face to be photographed or her real name to be used for this article.
"I come here in secret without my in-laws' permission. If I am found out they could attack my father," explains Rubina. "They would kill anyone I tried to marry without their permission."
Now, Rubina comes secretly to class with 50 other poor women to learn about measuring, cutting, sewing and how to maintain her shiny, new sewing machine. As part of the three-month course, every student receives a sewing machine and a small loan to purchase materials for starting their own business after completion of the course. They also receive basic literacy training.
Mercy Corps, with funding from the British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), helps to support this program and the Helmand Women's Association as part of a large capacity building program in southern Afghanistan. The key objectives of the program are to improve the rural livelihoods of Afghan people and strengthen the local NGO sector.
For Rubina the tailoring course is far more than a chance to learn new skills. "I come here and for the first time in years I am able to talk with other women. I have friends now," she says. "When I am here I forget my troubles for awhile and have hope that the future will be better."