This year, I was very fortunate to go to the annual Amnesty Student Conference, held in the Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch. Right from the get-go, the Conference was jam-packed with plenaries, workshops and coffee breaks to meet the other activists around the country.
My favourite discussion focussed on Women’s Rights in Afghanistan and “Why it is in the news for the wrong reasons”. Manizha Naderi started the discussion by discussing her background and how she was born in Kabul, but was raised in New York. I was deeply moved by how she left everything in the States to set up her own Community Outreach Programme in WAW (Women for Afghan Women), working in Afghanistan. She told us how she created ground-breaking projects such as the Family Guidance Centre (FGC) which offers counselling and mediation to families in crisis and to women and girls who experience domestic violence and rape.
I was shocked when she explained that they get at least one new case every day in the Family Guidance Centre, and it really touched me when she shared success stories of how women were repeatedly raped and abused until they sought refuge in the protection centre. One account was of a young girl who wanted to get married a man, but was forced by her brother to marry a distant cousin instead. After months of rape and abuse, she finally tried to run away but her brother and cousin found her and killed her, cutting up her body and putting her to shame in front of the community. Accounts like this are fairly common in parts of Afghanistan even today and it is even more heart-breaking that over 87% of Afghan women are subject to some form of domestic violence every day.
Manizha, however, after reducing everyone to tears with real life experiences of Afghan women, told us a tale of hope. She explained how WAW now operates eight FGCs in eight provinces and has helped over 8000 women since 2007. Manizha herself defeated the harsh policies in Afghanistan which did not allow for refuge shelters to be opened for women in a legal battle. Since then, she has opened seven shelters for girls who could not return home because of threats of violence, and she runs vocational training classes to help women earn a living and achieve financial independence. She also started three Children Support Centres (CSCs) for children who were residing with their mothers in prison. It is really inspiring that over 230 children are now living and getting educated in WAW’s CSCs, which is enabling them to move from their past and have hope for the future.
Manizha told us how she had to overcome significant barriers to her own cultural heritage in her own life. Through helping countless women and children struggle through hardships and pain, she has led a revolution that will help shape Afghan Women’s rights in the future and advance women’s rights in Afghanistan around the world.
The second speaker in this panel was Jawed Nader, the Director of British & Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG). Jawed’s speech was very different in the sense that it was from an Afghan male’s perspective, however it was still centred on the idea of hope and progress. Jawed explained the history of Afghanistan and how women’s rights have evolved over time. He spoke about the 1970s when Russia was exerting power on Afghanistan which led to a dramatic improvement in Afghan Women’s Rights with over 60% of girls being educated. However, with the rise of the Taliban and the movement into a war-zone, women’s rights were stripped and increasing numbers of children began to leave school and take up a role in the domestic sphere. I was shocked by how dramatically women and girls’ rights were stripped away when the Taliban came into power. One would have thought that someone would step in and give these women basic rights such as education, considering the scale of Western intervention in Afghanistan.
I spoke to Jawed after the panel discussion and having lived in the same part of India as myself (Bangalore), we shared similar ideals about women’s rights. He told me that as the troops are planning on leaving Afghanistan early next year, international pressure is necessary to ensure women’s rights do not deteriorate further. Continued support by students to organisations such as WAW will help to cover lost ground in women’s rights.
Karla McLaren, the Campaign Manager of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan at AIUK shared her experiences of campaigning on this issue, and what was evident was not the lack of knowledge worldwide on this issue. The issue at the moment is that news stories focus just on the past in Afghanistan and on specific cases of women’s rights violations, but not on the progress being made in supporting Afghan women. The media should now concentrate on what rights women do have and what can be done to ensure these rights remain. Instead of going back to a war period with little rights, we all need to focus on the positive future for women by helping charities such as WAW and BAAG in achieving their goals of empowering women in Afghanistan.
I went into the discussion with a disheartened view of what being a woman was like in Afghanistan. However, after hearing Manizha share her experiences in Afghanistan and conversing with Jawed about what can be done today, I am optimistic about the future.
The Afghan government already has more female MPs as a proportion of total MPs than we do here in the UK. There is hope that one day, Afghan women will be able to enjoy the same rights as we do.