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Breaking Down Barriers: The Dual Implications of Conflict and Societal Barriers on Women.

On Thursday 10 January 2019, the ACAA held their inaugural conference of the year on, “Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: Breaking Down Barriers”. The diverse, female panel reflected the what we can achieve when women are empowered; strength, confidence and healthy intellectual debate  As expected, the panel invited discussion and questions which were vital to addressing the human rights issues that women face in Afghanistan such as education, employability and domestic violence. The panel also reflected on the unfortunate truth that women in Afghanistan face a dual vulnerability as they are tied down to the consequences of conflict while being subject to continued societal norms which have been so persistent that they impact the lives of women on all levels.

The conference touched upon the fact that while society heavily focuses on the political and economic implications of discrimination, we often neglect social factors as a fundamental contributor and, furthermore, one that is statistically ambiguous as it operates on many different levels. Therefore, it was good to see that the UNHCR Protection Officer, Sasha Ali, noted that although women’s rights have improved in general – they have not improved enough. Young girls and women still lack education, especially in rural areas where domestic violence towards women is present, both physically and mentally, and men still dominate political positions.

It is clear that conflict and extremists groups such as the Taliban have had a crucial role to play in this, but as a society should we only point our fingers towards one factor? When mentioning the decreased rights of women during the Taliban era, we were reminded by Sasha Ali that women’s rights were still a concern even before the Taliban. Ali reiterated the fact that the issues of women’s rights are not solely political or economic but are also a social phenomenon deeply rooted in long-held cultural norms and stigmas. The hurdle of social discrimination is a large one – overcoming it could not only transform traditional cultural attitudes but can also challenge stereotypes of women and the role they play in society.

The conference provided an excellent opportunity for like-minded individuals to engage in an open discussion where the contribution from a wide range of people was received. The strong female turnout reflected the need to hold events such as these. It also showcased the importance of women’s participation in politics, peacekeeping and helping pave the way for policy changes which could redefine social expectations. Dr. Mastourah’s grassroots project which uses artwork to empower refugee women is a brilliant example of this.

It was great to see an event stressing that waiting for society to change won’t tackle human rights issues. It starts by looking at ourselves. In this case, it starts by questioning how we can utilise our positions to continue empowering vulnerable women everywhere else, so they can use their own voice to breakdown social barriers that have defined the rights of women for decades.

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