AFGHANISTAN – Mobile phones are the new frontline in Afghanistan. Handsets, masts and networks have become key targets for insurgents who want to stop people connecting, communicating, and educating themselves.
“They want to stop people from talking, stop people coming together.”
They want to stop women, in particular, from developing.
Sweeta Noori is the Country Director for Afghanistan of the charity Women for Women. Her family were part the Afghan elite before they fled the Mujahideen. Sweeta returned, and has worked building women’s networks and capacity for more than ten years.
Since the US-led invasion in 2001 there have been three distinct phases of women’s development, she says. The current phase leaves women in a precarious position – the leap forward that was achieved in the first few years has yet to be cemented and there has been a rise in domestic violence against women and attacks on girls going to school:
“They throw acid in girls’ faces, or poison the water in their schools. Even those who aren’t directly affected are naturally reluctant to send their daughters to school.”
Part of women’s development has been increased access to technology and mobile phones, offering a lifeline that can help them build networks, access banking services, or get information about when a communal water tap is operating – but now that is under threat.
Under Taliban rule mobile phones were almost nonexistent, but in the last ten years Afghanistan has become one of the world’s fastest growing markets. The Afghan company Roshan had 400,000 customers in 2005. Now there are more than 5 million, and a network that covers 60 per cent of the population.
Destroying the transmission masts that have improved communications has been a Taliban goal since 2007, but recently attacks have soared with as many as 30 towers being destroyed in a single month.
“They used to just blow up our fuel tanks,” an Afghan telecoms executive said. “Now they put fuel inside the control room with all the equipment, destroying everything.”
Attacks have also focused on hub relay towers, blacking out provinces for days on end.
Destroying the wireless network has consequences for all Afghans, as well as US-led forces who often receive important tip-offs by night time phone calls – but women face additional difficulties that have taken years to tackle.
When Maryam brought a handset home her husband beat and whipped her: “My husband’s family is very traditional,” she says, “They are very much against mobile phones and freedom for women.”
Aleeda Fazal is a mobile money specialist. She said:
“In the Afghan woman’s mind, mobile phone technology helps her to keep in touch with friends and can help her be entrepreneurial. In the Afghan man’s mind, the technology means he loses control of the woman.”
At the urging of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, mobile phone companies, and the GSMA industry body MWomen, have been developing campaigns to give women safer access to mobiles.
Afghanistan’s biggest wireless provider, Telecom Development Company Afghanistan, developed adverts showing men giving phones as gifts that benefit the whole family. Other campaigns in the developing world have included an all-female sales force that visits women in their homes, or sending airtime directly to handsets in countries where women don’t have access to cash.
None of these methods are foolproof, however, in countries where a mobile is seen as a tool of freedom – and therefore, a threat.
On a personal level, Maryam said she won’t use a mobile phone again: “Using a cell phone in Afghanistan is quite difficult. My husband said he would divorce me.”
The wider picture is also grim: With masts and hubs under attack, many companies are refusing a Presidential order to keep their facilities turned on. For the first time in ten years mobile usage is going down.
For the moment the mobile network in Afghanistan remains under siege.