Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Afghanistan radio program offers a voice for disabled people

From USA Today:

KABUL — Amina Azimi (pictured) was just a young girl when a rocket-propelled grenade crashed into her home and exploded, severing her right leg.

Like many Afghans with similar disabilities, Azimi fretted over her future, knowing the hardships she would face in a country where the disabled are often discriminated against in schools and the workplace. That is, when they can find a job.

"After it happened I thought I was useless and the rest of my life meaningless," she says, recalling the attack some 15 years ago during the height of the Afghan civil war.

Today, Azimi, 26, has found a purpose: She uses the radio to boost the fortunes of people with disabilities in a country where prejudices against such people is ingrained in the culture and the number of disabled people has grown significantly because of three decades of near-constant conflict.

Azimi reaches out to other disabled Afghans via Qahir-e-Qahraman (Qahir the Champion), her radio program named for a disabled Afghan man who is a celebrated physically challenged cyclist and a double-leg amputee.

Over the past six years, the show has produced more than 300 short weekly programs that profile those who have overcome physical impediments. The show, which collects stories from disabled peoople from all corners of Afghanistan, is edited at the Kabul offices of Internews, an international media development organization that trains local journalists to create local radio and television content.

"Afghanistan is a nation of cripples," says Masood Farivar, an Internews adviser. "Disabled people make a significant part of the population, and we wanted to give them a voice."

Internews helps provide that voice by distributing and airing the show to more than 40 partner stations throughout Afghanistan free of charge, he says.

"It doesn't matter if we don't have an arm or a leg, we still have our same minds … that's how we overcome our disability," says Haji Nader, 49, who directs the program. He lost part of his right arm while fighting the Soviets as a member of the mujahedin.

When they are not producing the show, which provides content in the dominant languages Dari and Pashtun, both Azimi and Nader work for Afghan non-government organizations that assist the disabled. Though the two have overcome their particular disabilities, many Afghans suffering the loss of a limb or other war-related injury are not as fortunate.

According to a U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) assessment, one in five households has at least one person with a disability, putting a financial strain on many already impoverished families that count on everyone to contribute to the household income.

The Afghan government estimates that between 800,000 and 2 million people are disabled, the vast majority of whom were injured during the past three decades. As the population approaches 30 million, Afghanistan has among the highest percentage of disabled people in the world.

Some employers here believe that disabled people are incapable of being productive employees, Nader says.

"The disabled are human beings with dignity and shouldn't be discriminated against," he says.

Hoping to counter the prejudices and encourage Afghanistan's disabled to enter the workforce, Nader and Azimi recently produced a segment of their show at a small school in western Kabul that teaches disabled women how to make dresses.

In small basement workshop, 10 women worked at sewing machines while an instructor monitors their progress. Each seamstress was either missing limbs or an eye

With nimble fingers, Nagiba, who like many Afghans goes by one name, expertly sewed the seam of a dress she first learned to make just a few months ago. Twenty years ago, she lost her left eye during the war between factions struggling to wrest control of the country after Soviet forces left.

Her husband, who she says was beaten by the Taliban, has been unable to work for years, making her the sole provider for four children.

"This workshop gives us the kind of assistance to learn new skills so we can work from home," she told Nader and Azimi.

The founder of the sewing program, Ali Yawar Rhoshmand, said he was inspired to create the classes because of his own disability. He lost his right leg just above the knee to a land mine in western Afghanistan in 1990.

"When I lost my leg, I became ashamed and had problems relating to my family," he told the producers. "I would watch my friends play football and other games and it was very hard for me. "

After a while, Rhoshmand said, he realized he didn't have to let his injury rule the rest of his life.

Despite their success, the creators of Qahir-e-Qahraman still have obstacles to overcome. Nader says the show's funding has been cut and that they are producing it on their time and expense.

"Six years ago, the disabled community decided that we should be given a chance to tell our story," Nader says. "And that's what we'll keep doing."