Najiyah Hanifi, a young Afghan radio journalist, is heading up the first women's community radio station in northern Afghanistan, located in the city of Mazar-e Sharif. "This work is not without challenges, but we have a long journey ahead," she told IRIN.
Named after the 9th century Afghan princess and famous poetess, Rabi'ah Balkhi, the radio station broadcasts two hours a day, carrying programmes on public health, ethics, women's rights and entertainment, mostly consisting of Afghan songs. "As most of our people are illiterate, radio is the most powerful media tool for education and entertainment," she said.
The Central Asian nation of 26 million people has a literacy rate of about 30 percent, with much lower levels for rural women. Barely four percent of the population has electricity, and television and telephones are rare outside a handful of cities.
But most Afghans do have access to radio receivers and are accustomed to using them as a source of news, information, education and entertainment. Experts maintain that community radio stations such as Rabi'ah Balkhi could play a leading role in reconstruction, development, democracy and nation-building.
Radio Afghanistan was officially introduced in 1963 with short and medium wave transmissions capable of reaching listeners across the country and beyond. The state radio’s independence ended with the demise of King Muhammad Zahir Shah’s reign in 1973. Successive regimes tended to use radio as a propaganda tool. Although the former hardline Islamist Taliban rulers enforced a strict ban on television, they continued to use radio to propagate their views. The Taliban completely banned music on the air, and barred women journalists from working.
According to Radio Afghanistan, some 17 provincial radio stations are now active across the country, but many are controlled by regional strongmen and have a limited output.
It was only after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 that Hanifi could resume her work at the local state-run Balkh radio station. However, she quit her job a year ago because it was hard to work under restrictions brought about by factional infighting and power struggles. "It’s unfortunate that the government-owned radio stations across the nation are used to promoting parochial agendas and interests of local commanders," she said.
Situated in a two-roomed rented apartment inside a commercial market on a dusty street in Mazar-e Sharif, some of Hanifi's female colleagues still have to use the chador, or all-enveloping Afghan veil, while coming to work. "At first, people in the building were uneasy about our presence, but they have now adapted to it," she said. The station's FM transmitter is backed up by two car batteries to cope with the frequent power cuts in the city.
Radio Rabi'ah Balkhi is supported by the Canadian charity, the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS), and started broadcasting on 8 March. With a monthly grant of US $500, IMPACS contributes to the salaries of five female journalists and producers, and a male technician at the station. Some 20 volunteers, mostly students from the Balkh University in Mazar-e Sharif, also contribute to programming.
A similar radio station also operates in the capital, Kabul, and is supported by the UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation UNESCO and the French media NGO, AINA.
With rival warlords jostling for power, Mazar-e Sharif remains one of the most volatile cities in the country. According to Hanifi, they have had no major problems to date, because the governor of Balkh has always supported their cause. "The council of the clerics questioned our existence, but the governor convinced them," she observed, but added that there was a degree of self-censorship. "We are extra cautious with religion and controversial political issues," she said.
Despite challenges, Rabi'ah Balkhi lives on, and many women find it useful. Humayrah Salimi, a local university student, told IRIN that such initiatives were badly needed. "We thought that after Taliban we will have more freedom, but we still have to struggle, and this radio is our voice and hope," she said.
"We believe it is important, because a very small number of women work in the state radio and they have little control over the content, and it’s also an income and entertainment resource for women," Alexis Matrin, the project director of IMPACS, told IRIN from Kabul. The NGO plans to establish 10 similar stations across Afghan towns and cities towards the end of this year.
Jacques Chantchesnel, the manager for regional media development with AINA, told IRIN that because most radios were still state-controlled, it was important to establish independent community broadcasting. "This is low cost and will contribute to reconstruction and development," he said.
Chantchesnel maintained that sustainability was a key challenge ahead for such efforts. "How will they earn their living? Are they going to use funding from donors or would they be self-reliant?" he asked, adding that the quality of the contents could also determine the future of such initiatives.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions