On International Women’s Day young women from Afghanistan speak out

8 March is International Women’s Day when the world celebrates the achievements of women, while also highlighting where progress has yet to be made. In the last decade significant advances have taken place for women in Afghanistan. However, UN Women points out that on all the country’s major social indicators there is a consistent pattern of women’s disempowerment. Only 6 per cent of women over the age of 25 have a formal education and due to severe restrictions on mobility, only 8 per cent of women are involved in jobs outside of agriculture.

Despite, this challenging reality, two young women continue to devote their energies to securing the rights and well-being of women in their country. Leena Shinwari and Wazhma Hazratzay are both amazingly brave and committed. Leena currently manages a call-in centre for a non-profit where she fields numerous phone calls from women who report and seek help for handling many forms of violence. Wazhma, who is Leena’s best friend works closely with her in the same field as a legal adviser with the Afghanistan Attorney General’s office in Kabul.

The women participated in an event organized by UNFPA in Bangkok and spoke to UNAIDS about the work they do and what drives them. Due to the daily threats they face, we have refrained from publishing their photographs.

(The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS).

UNAIDS: Why did you decide to go into this field?

Wazhma: As you know in Afghanistan, many women do not work. They are often not accepted in professions such as lawyer, doctor or engineer. Since most women don’t work outside the home they have to struggle a lot to prove their self-worth and show that they are hardworking. I am always asked: How are the women of Afghanistan supposed to serve their community and society if they aren’t allowed to work? I wanted to do something about this situation and help the women around me so I started out by helping myself.

UNAIDS: You are an exception it seems.  You went ahead and pursued your education and are working. Is your family supportive?

Leena: I am lucky that my parents are educated and because of that, they understand how important education is. They allowed me to pursue my education and work wherever I wanted to. Family support is very important. Without it, we wouldn’t be here today. Both Wazhma and I live in Kabul city, where people go to get an education. So, we were fortunate enough to be educated. When women live far from the city,  it become almost impossible for them to receive any form of schooling.

UNAIDS: Is the situation for women in Afghanistan changing? Are more women going to school?

Leena:  Yes. Everyday bit by bit there are changes. Some women are starting to get educated and have jobs outside the home. Now there are women working in the government ministries and also as politicians. Little by little changes are occurring. But there is still a long way to go.

UNAIDS: What are some of the types of cases you’ve dealt with?

Leena:  One case I handled involved a young woman, who was forcibly married off to a man with a mental illness by her father. After some time, she was sold off to another man by her father-in-law. She called me desperate for help. I advised her to seek help from her family, but her family refused to help her. When she called back telling me this I advised her to go to the police. Her family found out that she was going to go to the police and they changed their mind and decided to help her because if she went to the police it would mean that she would be placed in a shelter. In Afghanistan, shelters have a really bad reputation so her family opted to help her out of fear that she would be put in a shelter.

UNAIDS: Is there one case in particular that had a big impact on you?

Wazhma: Yes, for me it is the case of a female judge, who was abused physically and psychologically by her husband, who had taken a second wife. One day, she came into my office with her face severely bruised. It made me wonder that if a woman in such a high position was vulnerable to this kind of violence, how can ordinary women not be?

I promised myself that I was going to help her. Eventually, we managed to imprison her husband for six months. He was supposed to be sentenced for a longer time, but he promised the judge that he would never harm his wife again and take good care of her. Now I see that the female judge is happy. These are the moments that make me happy as well as encourage me to continue my fight for women’s rights and justice in Afghanistan.

UNAIDS: What is your hope for women in Afghanistan? What do you want to achieve?

Leena: My hope is that every woman should have access to justice. Women should know their rights. They should have economic empowerment and independence and not be dependent on men. I hope for women, who are being mistreated to get support from their family because usually in our society they don’t. Knowing their rights is of outmost  importance for women. With this they will be able to hold jobs outside their homes and be economically empowered. Maybe then violence against women will be eliminated.  

UNAIDS: You are going to get married soon. Are you worried you might face some restrictions?

Wazhma: My fiance is an educated man from India. I know for a fact that he will not stop me from working. Instead, I am sure that he will help me in my work wherever he can. However, I know that not every woman in Afghanistan is as lucky as I am. I have witnessed that when women get married their husbands or the head of the family will not allow them  to work outside their home. They are governed by the men in their lives, whether it is their fathers, brothers or husbands.  Even if they want to see their families after marriage, they need to get permission from the head of the family first. Most women, despite being educated and wanting freedom just go on with their lives like this because that’s the rule of society.

UNAIDS: Do you think this will change?

Wazhma: I hope so. Things are starting to change. Education is the only thing that can change this. Men who have an education are very different from men who don’t. When we women marry an educated man, the men like it when we work outside of the house and they know all the rights that women possess. Education is so important for men as well as women. If everyone is educated then there would be no problems,  but the truth is that majority of the people are not educated. They are not knowledgeable about rights and equality and that’s why these problems exist.

UNAIDS: What are the challenges you face as a defender of women’s rights?

Leena: Security- that is a huge problem for us.  At the call center I receive approximately 20 threats a day. Men used to call and say that as a woman I’m not supposed to work. Even the Taliban used to call me and say that if they knew where our NGO is situated, they would plan a suicide attack on it. When I leave my home in the morning I’m not sure if I will come back or not. It is a dangerous job but I will continue to do it because of the love I have for my people and my country. I will work and fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan for as long as I can.

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