Sanjar Qiam can readily recite examples of domestic abuse in his country, Afghanistan.
“Just last week we received a call from neighbors,” Qiam, the director of a Kabul-based communications business, Gandeeray, recalled in a phone interview from his home in London, where he moved a few months ago. “‘There is a family,’ they said. “The husband is a drug addict and he constantly beats his wife. We hear her crying almost every day.’ “
Qiam hears these stories on what he says is Afghanistan’s first domestic abuse hotline, managed by his company. Last December, Gandeeray started the hotline in Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan. People can call the toll-free service, either for themselves or for others, and receive various emergency and long-term support services over the phone or later in person.
Given Afghanistan’ domestic violence crisis, Qiam said that the service was long overdue. Indeed, 87 percent of women in the country face physical, sexual or psychological violence or are forced into marriage, says a 2012 Human Rights Watch report. Moreover, about 400 women and girls are imprisoned in Afghanistan for “moral crimes,” which usually involve fleeing illegal forced marriages or domestic violence, the rights group said. Some women and girls are also convicted of zina, sex outside of marriage, after being raped or forced into prostitution.
In the last year, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a nonprofit rights group, reported that 88 women in western Afghanistan alone burned themselves in response to domestic violence.
“Afghanistan is a country with fertile grounds for abuse to develop,” Qiam said. “So a hotline for family support is something that needs to happen.”
The service, with five full-time staff members, receives most of its financing from the United Nations Development Program. Qiam asked for $60,000 from the UN agency but initially received half that amount. Once the hotline was up and running, the UN gave him another $16,000. Gandeeray got the grant after going through a competitive evaluation process, said Sharmistha Dasbarwa, the UN Development Program’s project manager for gender equality, based in the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul.
Qiam studied in Britain but returned to Afghanistan to help set up radio stations with Internews, a nonprofit media entity. He founded Gandeeray, a communications business, in 2008 to tap the rise in cellphone use in his country. He has since returned to London, though he said he still communicated with Gandeeray daily.
Besides counseling women, the hotline tracks statistics for each call, including the caller’s age and location, and records the information online.
“It’s important to realize that this project is in its very early stages and is ongoing, but the early response has been good,” Dasbarwa said. “One of the indicators that the project is working well is that while it was set up for Balkh Province, women from nearby provinces, such as Badakshan and Kunduz, have also been calling in.”
A ‘dysfunctional’ country
From women who need immediate help to widows seeking financial advice, the calls vary each day. When a call comes in, operators try to field the message to the appropriate legal or social work professionals. Often, however, hotline employees – who are trained in receiving calls but have no formal social work education – deal with situations themselves because of limited regional agencies.
“Through these calls, we learn that local authorities are not very responsive,” Qiam said. In Afghanistan, “you have a dysfunctional society, so you have to try your best to help, bearing in mind that not everything is working.”
Qiam wanted the hotline to go nationwide at first, but a lack of resources forced his team to narrow its vision to one province so far. Not only is there a shortage of public money for such a project, he said, but grants and donations are often spread thin.
“It’s been a problem to find money, because every organization has its own priorities,” he said. “We managed to get about 10 percent of what we were asking for.”
Regardless of its scale, Gandeeray’s service is much needed. While most experts agree that women’s rights have improved since the Taliban’s official downfall in 2001, they are now concerned that conditions will once again deteriorate as American and other foreign troops start pulling out of the country as early as next year.
“The future is very frightening because the international community and the funding that it’s provided has been very critical in terms of what’s happened so far,” Heather Barr, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said of the country’s improvements till now.
Barr was unfamiliar with the hotline, but with just 14 women’s shelters spread throughout the country of 34 million – each shelter housing just 20 to 25 people – she is eager to monitor its progress.
“Not many women have access to telephones, so it will be interesting to see how it works,” she said. “But if it works well, then it will be another approach.”
While traditionally women have difficulty obtaining and using cellphones, Chic Dabby, director of the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, in San Fransico, think the calls will be made.
“Once such a resource becomes known, women are very resourceful,” Dabby said. “They use a neighbor’s phone or a friend’s phone.”
The more pressing issue, she said, is ensuring that women know about the service.
“It’s really important to raise awareness that the service exists,” she added. “Because most people know the problem exists. But seeing that help is available – it breaks the isolation and the sense of feeling desperately alone.”
Qiam’s staff is trying to raise awareness. The hotline began with an aggressive marketing campaign, aiming to build relationships with local authorities and gain trust in communities. While Qiam, who studied in Britain, focuses on fund-raising, two employees are dedicated full-time to field marketing. This part of the hotline accounts for the bulk of its expenses.
Some of the hotline’s other challenges are more problematic. Of the 40 or so calls received daily, only four, on average, are from women who actually need help. The rest are placed by men who either dial accidentally or want to harass the operators.
“It’s a serious operational hazard because it’s not only a drain on resources, but it’s a drain on morale,” Qiam said. “You constantly have to remind [the operators] what this is about.”
Despite these challenges and an uncertain future, Qiam hopes to go national, even though his money will run out later this month. As he continues to seek funds from both the UN and nonprofit groups, he said that it was more crucial than ever to keep the hotline running.
“The reason I don’t want it to shut down is because I can’t make a compelling case to sponsors if it is not operating.”
He remains optimistic. Over the past few months, the number of serious calls received has been steadily rising, and phone operators are becoming more comfortable handling prank callers.
“The Ministry [of Women] thinks it’s a good idea,” he said of the hotline. “But people always think it’s a good idea, so that doesn’t mean much. But we’ve helped 200 people so far – and that’s worth something.”