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BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – In an almost all female forum, Afghan community, military leaders and U.S. Embassy leaders gathered for the Regional Command East Women’s Conference at the JIRGA Center on Bagram Airfield, May 11.
Topics discussed were ways to pursue a unified commitment to increase economic opportunities, increase literacy rates, and to reduce violence against women.
“In just a few short years, women here have come a very long way,” said Ms. Dawn Liberi, senior civilian representative for Combined Joint Task Force-82 and RC-E. “In 2000, women could not vote. They were not represented in the government. Violence against women was common. Ten years later, women occupy important offices and are in leadership positions, not only in the military, but also in business, education, government and almost every form of human activity.”
Some of Afghanistan’s most influential women who have paved the way for women during the past decade attended the conference. These women included Afghan National Army Gen. Khatol Mohammadzai, who is the first female parachutist and the only serving female general in the Afghan National Army; Dr. Habiba Sarabi, Bamyan Province governor; Dr. Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission; and Shukria Barakzai, who is one of 71 women out of 249 members of Parliament.
While during the past 10 years much progress has been made in women’s issues, there is still a long road ahead. Women voiced their concerns, opinions and thoughts of solutions to the room of leaders.
A few women said although there is the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul, there needs to be more local, district level, places for women to go to for assistance.
One woman said “Most women have family problems; violence against them, but they need a place to go – a center – so if (they have) a problem, (they have) a place to go to (locally). All men decide what they want about women in the Jirga, but they need to let women speak about themselves.”
Other concerns addressed were the need for trust funds and finances for projects that are funded independently, not by the government. Another speaker raised the issue of policy in the workplace. Just as the United States has Affirmative Action to create equal opportunities in the workplace, she said that there should be stricter laws that mandate women have the same opportunities to be hired as men. If the women aren’t qualified, there should be civil and professional education opportunities to help teach them the skills.
Even though many of the issues brought up were in reference to financial, educational, logistical and familial issues, Liberi said that United States of America International Development and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have programs set up, but women don’t know about them. This forum was used to help spread awareness of the already funded programs available.
As governor of the Bamyan Province, Sarabi discussed programs that have worked for her people. She currently has six shops that female shopkeepers run. She said at first she had a male police officer protect the first female shopkeeper, however, now there are no issues of violence because the people have accepted women in these shops.
“If we want to bring changes, we need to sit with the people. We are only there to serve them. We are not their master, but their servants,” Sarabi said of being a political figure.
Along with funding many programs throughout Afghanistan for women’s aid, a few women suggested using the media to raise awareness about women’s issues.
Current statistics provided by CJTF-82 state that 48.8 percent of Afghanistan’s population are female; 12 percent of females 15 years and older can read and write; 47 percent of working age females are currently active on the labor market compared to the 86 percent of males; in the agricultural sector, women are paid an average 54 percent of wages paid to men; women earn an average 49 percent of wages paid to men in non-farm occupations; women represent 27 percent of the National Assembly; of the total military personnel only 259 (0.6 percent) were women, including 122 sergeants and 137 ordinary soldiers.
With numbers like these, it’s difficult to imagine an Afghanistan where women can lead the way, but according to Barakzai, history tells a story of an Afghanistan where women participated in Loya Jirgas, or important meetings, and worked in top government posts decades ago, before the Taliban.
“Few foreigners know about Malalai, a female icon of Afghan history and a person of great honor for every Afghan. Malalai was not a women in a Burka; she fought alongside men and perhaps in more bravery than Afghan men, against the British colonists almost 200 years ago,” Barakzai said.
Hard working Afghan women are still leading the way today, as Barakzai proves with her desire to better women’s affairs while also having a family.
“I’m not the only mother in parliament. All women have a dream. We want them to come true,” she added. “We wore burkas during the Taliban. We had a dream. We believed in ourselves and worked. Now, without a burka, we still work. The first step is not an achievement, but a duty and responsibility.”
This responsibility is acknowledged by most women who attended the conference. One freelance videographer has spent the past eight months in Afghanistan following Afghan women in their struggle to become equals.
“Yes, there are lots of problems in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t mean (women) want to stop searching,” said Sahra Karimi, an Afghan freelance videographer who was raised in Iran and earned her doctorate degree in the Czech Republic. “People need to see the real life of Afghan people and break down the walls.”
Breaking down walls, or communication barriers, is just what the Women’s Conference was about. In doing so, some may argue that while foreigners are trying to teach the Afghan people a few things about life, the Afghans have in turn taught lessons of their own.
“This signals a whole element of partnership,” said Liberi. “(Afghan women) have taught us resiliency. They have lived under oppression, marginalization and intimidation. Thirty years ago they were on their way to being a solid state. The Taliban took it all out. These women have had tremendous courage, resiliency and perseverance. They do dream. They have an expectation of a better future. They are strong and don’t give up and they are people. This shows us that no matter what the situation, you can overcome.”
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