Nowzad and the female vets breaking taboos in Afghanistan
Tom Burrington talks to the first two female vets in Afghanistan who are working with animal charity Nowzad to improve and save the lives of stray dogs from the city of Kabul.
Dr Tehara started working at Nowzad's veterinary clinic in March this year.
THE WAR which lasted over a decade has left painful memories and scars in Afghanistan but as the country continues to move forward and rebuild, its determined people must be positive that the sun will shine on them again.
One charity which aims to ensure the future is also improved for the country’s dogs is Nowzad. The charity was formed after 42 Commando Royal Marines arrived in the war-torn town of Now Zad in Helmand Province of Afghanistan in November 2006. They were there to provide stability for the local people but soon realised that it wasn’t only humans who needed their help.
The stray dogs who roamed the town of Now Zad were often in awful condition and clearly suffering. However, they now had a guardian for the first time in their lives in the form of Royal Marine Sergeant ‘Pen’ Farthing.
Breaking up an organised dog fight that was taking place right outside their remote compound, Pen didn’t realise that one of those fighting dogs would then befriend him. The Royal Marine couldn’t say no to those big sad eyes and the dog became the Royal Marines’ four-legged buddy and got a name – ‘Nowzad’.
The story of the rescue of Nowzad and his other canine buddies from the remote desert outpost of Now Zad was published as a best-selling book, One Dog at a Time, which helped to promote and fund the running of the Nowzad dogs’ charity which was formed in May 2007.
Today Nowzad is a registered charity in England and Wales and operates the only official animal shelter in Afghanistan located just outside Kabul. It is supported by a small animal clinic headed by a team of Afghan nationals.
Two vets working at the clinic are Dr Mariam and Dr Tehera who with the help of Nowzad have broken taboos to become the first two female vets in Afghanistan. I was delighted to talk to the two women about their passion for the welfare of dogs, work with Nowzad and their determination to have careers which are completely unconventional for women in their country.
Dr Mariam has worked at the clinic for three years.
Dr Mariam is from Kabul and was a senior medical student in medical veterinary science at Kabul University. I asked her about her role at the clinic and the duties and work she was involved in on a day-to-day basis.
She said: “Here at the clinic I deal with lots of animals including many dogs. My work includes giving vaccinations and treatments as well as amputations when they are needed.”
Dr Mariam can work with up to eight dogs a week and she often finds she is needed late at night as it is then when dogs are frequently brought to the clinic.
I asked more about the attitudes of the Afghan people towards dogs and some of the issues the stray dogs of the country face.
She said: “The attitudes people have towards animals here may be changing but pets and dogs still face lots of problems. Animals have accidents frequently and dogs bought as puppies to be pets are often disregarded as they get older.”
Afghanistan has a serious stray dog problem but with the help of Nowzad there is hope for the dogs who find themselves in need.
Dr Mariam went on to explain what it is like being a woman working in a career held in little regard by most in her country and the prejudices she faces.
“It’s complicated here being a female and working in the veterinary world. We don’t have much support but we are encouraging ourselves and the Nowzad team is a great help. The most important thing is that we enjoy it here, helping the animals who need us.
“It was my dream to be a vet because I love animals. I love to deal with them. I love to spend time with them and understand their behaviour and what they are saying to me.
“When I graduated from school I went to Kabul University to study veterinary medicine and there were lots of people around me who really didn’t like the fact I was a becoming a vet. People would say what if an animal has pain in the stomach – what are you going to do? So I said it’s okay – I will learn how to do it. It has been complicated for me to be a vet. People thought I was wasting my time, but I didn’t take notice of them and I just went ahead with the objective I had. I tell people I’m a vet and I’m really confident that I’m doing something good for animals.
The attitudes of the Afghan people are slowly changing but there is still much progress to be made.
“It’s new here, vets, and especially female vets. I’m doing surgery on the dogs, helping them, playing with them and people can’t believe I’m a vet. They say, ‘You’re a vet!’? To be honest I am now more comfortable with the animals in the clinic than I am with people.”
Dr Mariam has now been working at Nowzad for three years and was recently joined by Dr Tehera who has been working at the clinic since March.
Dr Tehara is of Afghan heritage but was born in Iran. She returned to Afghanistan to study veterinary medicine in the city of Kabul. I asked her how it felt to be working as a veterinary surgeon.
She said: “I’m so happy because when I graduated it was my dream come true. When I come to the clinic and am working and helping animals I am so happy.”
Dr Mariam inspects one of the dogs who has been brought to the clinic.
When growing up she was often saddened by the way she saw animals being treated. It inspired her to pursue her studies in animal care despite the same social obstacles Dr Mariam faced.
While many in the country do not hold vets in the high regard we in the West do, Dr Tehara also highlighted how important vets can be not just when it comes to the care of animals.
She said: “We know the veterinary field is important not only for animals’ health but for public health too. I want our society to be free from any disease, especially zoonotic disease, so I chose the veterinary field to achieve this goal. I want to be a useful person in my society.
“Also I want to change people’s behavior toward animals and keeping animals.”
It would appear that Nowzad has ensured there is hope for the strays of Kabul and surrounding areas but not only this. Its guidance under the passionate and capable Pen Farthing, and his partner Hannah, has seen it break the taboo of women working with animals in the country. It’s hard for those in the West to fathom not being given the opportunity to pursue our dreams but in many countries this is an all-too-true reality. The first two female vets in Afghanistan not only give hope to the dogs of the province but also to women around the world.
To find out more about Nowzad and the work it does go to www.nowzad.com.