Afghanistan - MARY AKRAM, Afghan Women Skills Development Centre

Mary Akrami is a co-founder and director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre (AWSDC), a non-profit, non-governmental and non-political organisation, established in 1999 by a group of committed Afghan women with the aim of reducing the suffering of Afghan women and children through the promotion of peace and initiation of rehabilitation and development projects. This organisation works for women's rights in Afghanisatan, empowering Afghan women and enhancing their capacities through education and training so that they can contribute to the process of sustainable development and peace. AWSDC also runs a shelter for women in Kabul.

"I was born in Kabul in 1977. All of my childhood memories are memories of conflict. There was never a peaceful time in my country. The sound of rockets and the stench of death were commonplace. During the reign of the Taliban, my family fled to seek refuge in Pakistan. It was there that I established AWSDC. AWSDC was established to provide much needed skills to Afghan women.

This testimony was composed after the latest suicide bomb which killed many civilians, innocent children and maimed many others. People have become so accustomed to conflict in Afghanistan that life seems to have lost its worth. Community response and action is practically non-existent.

It is in this climate that I fight tirelessly to bring about positive change for women. In a country where life is easily disregarded, the lives of women are considered the lowest form of life that exists. Women are seen as property. The human rights of women are violated every second of every day and strong and brave women like me and my colleagues attempt to give these women a voice. I put my own life and security at risk by doing so.

It unsettles people to see a woman being strong and vocal and it causes further upset when people see that I am encouraging other women to be strong and vocal with me.

For this reason I, and those like me, who are brave enough to challenge inhumane customs and social norms, are targets for unsolicited negative attention.

Threats against our lives are often covert, through innuendo. In 2003, AWSDC opened the first Shelter in Afghanistan, for women experiencing violence and other human rights violations.

They are given legal aid and on-going counseling. The women can also attend literacy, computer, dressmaking and English classes, and we find schools for the children.

The cases of women coming to the shelter can be very complex. Even when they are resolved there is nowhere for the women to go. They cannot live alone so the Shelter is the only option in most instances.

One beneficiary has been with us for over 3 years. She has special needs and when she was found she was heavily pregnant after being raped. Her daughter was born in the shelter, and has lived there since. The only hope this woman has of leaving the shelter is if someone will accept her in marriage.

Many of the women are at high risk of being murdered if they are found. Some are so desperate that they want to go back to their families and face the consequences – even if that means death! The women suffer bouts of deep depression and as they have no hope for their future, they often feel they would be better off dead.

Suicide rates in shelters are very high, and on the increase. We have not had any incidents of suicide but suicide prevention is a core part of our work, and we do everything in our power to try and address depression.

Protecting the beneficiaries is of utmost concern to us. Some of the women come from powerful and dangerous families and we live in fear of their families trying to find out where we are hiding their women – their property.

If they are found they will be shown no mercy and God help those of us that are trying to protect them."