Trio of older Japanese women aiding kids, women in Afghanistan

by Mika Funakoshi

Kyodo

Traveling between Japan and Afghanistan where fighting between NATO-led forces and Taliban rebels continues, three Japanese women in their 60s and 70s have been supporting Afghan women and children in need for a decade or more.

Making the best out of the local custom that pays special respect to elders, their activities are steadily bearing fruit despite the severe conditions in the war-torn country.

Keiko Nishigaki, a 76-year-old housewife from Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, recalled arriving in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan alone in 1994.

She took the trip after learning of the miserable circumstances faced by women and others there through a photo exhibition held in Tokyo by the Afghan Embassy, she said.

During the Taliban regime, which prohibited girls and women from going to school, Nishigaki helped finance salaries for female teachers providing classes secretly. After the regime’s collapse in December 2001, she helped build facilities for a women’s college and a soccer field with donations collected in Japan as well as out of her own pocket.

Meanwhile, 65-year-old Teiko Nakamichi, a retired science teacher living in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, first visited Kabul in 2002 on a teacher exchange program.

Having given a lesson at a girls’ high school, Nakamichi was touched when a student who was looking through a microscope said, “Cells are so beautiful.”

Since then, she has been giving financial support to improve education in Afghanistan, such as by offering training for female teachers and building schools, with her own money.

Likewise, Mayumi Karako, a 67-year-old housewife from Ikoma, Nara Prefecture, visited Kabul for the first time as a volunteer also in 2002. Seeing streets of utter destitution, she felt compelled to help care for the children.

She traveled alone to Herat in western Afghanistan and began working on improving the conditions of an orphanage.

Karako currently runs a nongovernmental organization that provides training for women in need so they can earn an income, such as by teaching them weaving and embroidery, even for kimono.

“Female elders are well-suited for aid activities in Islamic nations, although one definitely needs to have guts,” Nishigaki said.

That is because elderly women receive courteous treatment in Afghanistan, making it relatively easier to get things done, she explained. There was even a time when the Taliban provided her with a watchful escort when she was there, Nishigaki said.

Meanwhile, violence toward Afghan women has rapidly gained exposure over recent years. The Afghan government said 419 cases of such violence were reported in 2011, 1.6 times the 260 cases in the previous year.

Experts attributed the rise to public discontent with social instability and antipathy among some against women who have begun to gain independence.

At a women’s shelter in Kabul where about 20 people seek refuge, 14-year-old Sahar Gul said she was sold at the age of 9 to a 65-year-old man to become his “wife.” Since then, she continuously suffered from intense abuse, including having her nails torn off, her ears slashed, and suffering burns on her neck and chest.

Another abuse victim, Mumtaz, 18, said she suffered serious burns to her face and head after being doused with hydrochloric acid by a man whose marriage proposal she rejected.

In another case, a woman was handed over to the Taliban by her husband and raped because of her attempt to run for office in a local election.

Many of the victims find consolation through study or job training opportunities and once again find hope in life.

“That’s why every time I go (to Afghanistan), I feel there is something I can do,” Karako said.

Nakamichi said, “As long as one does not give up, things that could not have been achieved by one’s self alone will be realized through the power generated by a large number of people.”