Fatima Gailani is able to help when others are not

Jarkko Mikkonen
13 years ago the Afghan women weren't allowed to educate themselves or pursue a career. Today, Fatima Gailani is one of many female leaders.
Image: Jarkko Mikkonen

Fatima Gailani, President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, has probably one of the world’s most challenging jobs.

150 years of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

The Finnish Red Cross celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement by arranging a seminar on Monday 1st of October. The President of Finland, also a patron of the Finnish Red Cross, Sauli Niinistö, honoured the event with his presence.

- The Red Cross and the Red Crescent on white backgrounds are the most important symbols in the world. They are symbols of real caring and today caring plays an equally important role as it did when the Red Cross first was established, Niinistö said in his speech.

In his speech, President Niinistö also addressed the situation in Syria. He emphasized the significance of aid work and reminded that the international community and the policy makers have to take responsibility, so that aid gets delivered.

The seminar was also attended by the vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross Christine Beerli, President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society Fatima Gailani, State Secretary Pertti Torstila, and the Editor-in-Chief of Helsingin Sanomat Kaius Niemi. The commendations and acknowledgements to the Finnish Red Cross were presented by chairman Erkki Liikanen and General Secretary Kristiina Kumpula.

Gailani is leading a humanitarian organization in a country, which suffers from continuous conflicts and extreme poverty. On top of that, the Red Crescent is kept busy by natural disasters, and the ongoing fights are making the aid harder to deliver.

Gailani has been leading the Red Crescent in Afghanistan since 2004. Before she started working for the organization, she was in exile, studying in London during the Soviet occupation. She returned to Afghanistan back in 2001 and was a part of the Constitutional Commission. The country was not the same Afghanistan, which she had left behind prior to the conflict.

- Because the forests have been chopped down during the war, there are even more natural disasters nowadays. There are also a lot of injured and mentally diseased people, she says.

Illiteracy Afghanistan's biggest threat

According to Gailani, the country’s biggest current threat is the illiteracy among the poorest of the population.

- I believe illiteracy and the lack of education to be the biggest causes for the problems of Afghanistan, even one of the main things causing these conflicts.

Even if Gailani is feeling sorry for the country’s slow development, she sees big progress when it comes to status of women, for instance. Thirteen years ago women weren't able to attend school or work or even see a doctor by themselves. Nowadays female leadership is not uncommon. In Afghanistan over one fourth of the members of parliament are women, there are female ministers and women who work as diplomats and ambassadors.

- At the beginning of 20th century women had a progressed status even compared to Europe. However, the war made the situation revert for decades and now we need to get back where we started at. It's especially important for us older female leaders to be united and outspoken in order to have an impact.

The Red Crescent sometimes the only helper

The Red Crescent has a strong status in Afghanistan. Even the children know what it stands for. In the beginning of Gailani's career the organization was still finding its place in relation to the government and the authorities, but the roles have cleared up during the years. The Red Crescent's impartiality is recognized by almost everyone and the authorities trust the Red Cross. Even to such extent that it becomes a burden, as there is a lot of work to do.

- For instance, helping the refugees that are returning to this country is not a task for the Red Crescent. However, due to conflicts, the UN's refugee organization and the government authorities are not able to work everywhere. In those situations the Red Crescent is the only one who is able to help, thanks to its impartiality, Gailani says.

Challenges build up especially when a natural disaster hits a conflict area. That is also a situation where the Afghan Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are the only ones that are able to help.

- We have some 40 000 volunteers but we need more. Especially female volunteers play a key role as men are not permitted to attend women and children. Elderly female volunteers are particularly sought after, people who aren't shy of taking care of men and women of different ages, Gailani says.

Survival stories give strength

Poverty in Afghanistan is usually a matter of life and death. Because of poverty, for instance, many children are born with a heart condition, which leads to death usually by the age of 12-13. Gailani demanded that the Red Crescent would take responsibility of the treatment for these children and obtained the required treatment from India.

- They told me I'm mad, and at times I felt that they were right. But the treatments started to increase and it became a very important form of function for the organization. Perhaps for the first time in the history of Afghan Red Crescent, we got funding from the government, in addition to money from many funders, and soon we’ll have our own hospital!

- This is my choice of work, since I get to experience small-scale success almost every day. When something that has felt impossible eventually turns into reality, it feels great!

Fatima Gailani attended the Red Cross 150th Anniversary Seminar arranged by the Finnish Red Cross in Helsinki, 1st of October.

Link to the speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö