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Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: Breaking Down barriers

Written by Hugh Goddard, Volunteer at ACAA

On the 10th January the ACAA hosted a conference in the House of Commons, on the subject of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. The conference was chaired by Philip Davis, Director of NLET, who introduced our four panellists, Sasha Ali, a from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Noorzia Aimaq, an Afghan refugee who served as provincial councillor, Dr Mastoureh Fathi, Lecturer in Sociology at the Royal Holloway who works with migrants and refugees, and Shabnam Nasimi from Ealing council, an Afghan refugee who has worked with the ACAA for years.

Our first speaker was Sasha Ali, protection officer at the UNHCR, who highlighted some of the challenges faced by Afghan women, both among those living in Afghanistan and among refugee communities across the world. The problems discussed by Sasha Ali were diverse, but she identified education, domestic violence, and extremism among the most important problems. Sasha Ali identified improvements that have been made to the situation in Afghanistan since 2001, for example with a clear majority of girls in schools at the moment, but also discussed challenges that face Afghan women, such as very low education rates among women over 25, and issues that keep a fifth of girls out of school, such as early marriage and religious extremism, but praised the resilience of the Afghan people in the face of all difficulties.

Our second speaker was, Noorzia Aimaq. Noorzia served as a provincial councillor in Baghlan province, but was eventually forced to flee the country as a refugee. Noorzia discussed her experiences of Afghanistan and the situation for women in the country. Particularly under the Taliban regime, Noorzia saw first-hand the awful treatment of women: A pregnant woman denied medical treatment by the Taliban; women forbidden to leave their house unaccompanied by a man.

Noorzia was driven to enter politics by her desire to help and change things for women in Afghanistan, and underlined the importance of the Afghan diaspora in driving change and drawing western attention to these issues.

Dr Mastoureh Fathi, lecturer in sociology from Royal Holloway then spoke about the needs of Afghan refugee groups who have fled the country. Many of these women face similar cultural problems to women in Afghanistan, for example forced marriage and low education rates, and some face additional cultural barriers, for example language.

Dr Fathi’s projects with the Afghan diaspora have actively engaged women, with the intention of empowering all individuals in the community of all age groups. Importantly, these projects provide a safe space especially for women. The end purpose of these community projects is to tackle isolation, enable an avenue for engagement, and provide an opportunity to encourage young members of the community to be future leaders.

Finally, Shabnam Nasimi spoke about her experiences as an Afghan woman in the UK. Shabnam discussed threats that face Afghan women, including domestic violence and lack of political and economic opportunities for women. Shabnam then spoke on the recent past, and possible future for Afghanistan. Shabnam concluded by describing the importance of British people and Afghan diaspora, male and female in being advocates for women’s rights.

We were joined also by Liz McInnes MP, Shadow Foreign Minister, who spoke about her role and the opposition’s role in pressuring the government to pay attention to women’s rights in Afghanistan. Liz McInnes iterated her belief in the importance of womens’ health in DfID funding, and thanked the ACAA for its work and for hosting this valuable conference.

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