In the year 1998, when formal education was banned for women and girls under the oppressive Taliban regime, Suraya Pakzad, a women’s rights activist started running a covert school to educate young girls and women which later became the Voice of Women Organization, a nationally and internationally renowned women’s rights organization.
In the early days of what was to become VWO, Afghan professionals from various walks of life like Doctors, Engineers, Lawyers and Social Workers stepped forward and started relief activities in Kabul under the leadership of Suraya Pakzad. This group of qualified, dedicated and hard working professionals supported vulnerable women and families on their own before international donors took notice of their work and extended their cooperation.
What initially started as a covert education & literacy program uncovered the bitter, un-noticed and neglected truth about an impoverished population in the war torn Afghanistan which was basic human rights. In those days, beside the dire need for education and literacy, most of the women and their families were in search of ways to economically fulfill their basic needs. The pioneers of VWO took note of this and started vocational training classes beside the literacy program. It is noteworthy that some of the young girls who attended VWO’s covert school in its early days are now prominent members of Afghan Government holding top level positions in ministries and other institutions.
As the area and scope of work continued to expand, more women participated in the vocational training classes and shared their experiences about the life and needs of Afghan women. It was noticed that Social Protection and Legal Aid were among the most critical needs of Afghan women. VWO leadership focused on these two vital issues and laid the foundation for an organization that would specifically work in this domain to improve Legal & Social Protection, Access to Justice, Advocacy for Women’s Rights Legislation, Education, Health, Capacity Building for Social Empowerment and Vocational Training for Economic Empowerment.
Later, in 2002 when the Taliban regime was toppled and the international community announced their presence in Afghanistan. The partnerships with international donors necessitated the formal registration of the organization with the Government of Afghanistan. As such VWO was officially registered as the first women organization with the Government of Afghanistan, the name of the organization was chosen with the broader vision of crossing national boundaries in the future, to be the voice of the oppressed and meet the needs of at risk women internationally. Since its official establishment, the organization has carried out scores of projects for the socio-economic advancement of Afghan women.
In 2004, the Board of Directors of VWO realized that the Eastern part of the country was receiving much attention while the need for assistance to the women of the Western Region of Afghanistan was largely unfilled. Fundamentally, the Head Office of the organization was shifted to the Western city of Herat.
In Herat VWO established the first Women Protection Center which, now is the largest in Afghanistan. The women protection center project was first established in 2003 by UNHCR on a temporary basis for at risk women returning to Herat from neighboring Iran. VWO took over this responsibility and maintained the facility. In order to provide more and better services to those at-risk women, in October 2005 VWO secured funds for the project through the Embassy of Denmark in Kabul. The project is currently funded by INL/Colombo Plan for a period of 2 years. VWO is making efforts to secure long term (5 years) funding for the project for its sustainability.
VWO continued its successful journey and established Women Protection Centers in all provinces of southwestern Afghanistan (Badghis in 2009, Ghor & Farah in 2012 and Nimruz in 2013). VWO currently administers WPCs in Badghis, Ghor, Farah & Nimruz. Beside the WPCs VWO also established Family Guidance Centers (FGCs) where legal counselling and legal aid are provided to clients free of charge. VWO also has the LAB (Legal Advice Bureau) project in Herat family court and LAC (Legal Advice Center) in Badghis, both of these legal advice & legal aid projects provide free of charge services to families and individuals seeking access to justice.
For over a decade now, VWO has implemented and completed dozens of projects with help from international donors. Among the other notable projects carried by VWO in Western Region was the Self Immolation prevention project which run for 4 years and had a huge impact in decreasing the number of self-immolation cases by a considerably large percentage.
VWO started with just a few dedicated individuals, now the organization has over 10 projects with more than 250 staff members. VWO operations currently cover one third of Afghanistan and the plans are in place to extend activities to Kandahar province as well in the near future. VWO has also established liaison offices in Kabul, Philadelphia (United States) and Adelaide (Australia).
VWO leadership would like to extend its gratitude to all the donors, the stakeholders and its dedicated team of professional personnel who are all essential parts of this successful journey and look forward for a world free of violence against women especially the women of Afghanistan who have suffered immensely from violence during the course of contemporary history.