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The strength and resilience of the Afghan woman

Zulaikha Rafiq, Director of Afghan Women’s Educations Centre (AWEC), a leading NGO in Afghanistan for the empowerment of women. 
2 December 2014 - As the UK troops depart, and with a new president in place, Afghan civil society is urging the UK government to ensure that previous commitments made to Afghan women are high on the agenda at the London Conference on Afghanistan this week. 

Woman in Faryab province carrying silk scarves which she makes and sells with support from her local community fund.

Christian Aid/ Sarah Malian

Thirteen years since the world pledged its support to help rebuild Afghanistan as a country equipped with fair and equitable laws and standards to address the status of women a lot has been achieved, but a lot remains to be done. The lives of Afghan women have greatly improved since 2001 in terms of women’s rights and participation in education, employment and public life, however 9 out of 10 women over the age of 15 are still illiterate and violence against women remains endemic.
The horrors experienced by Afghan women during the decades of war have left indelible marks on our collective memory, and the focus on trying to undo the harm to one half of the  population has been cause for hope, as well as for suspicion and resentment, for different groups.  The ‘chadori’-clad faceless Afghan woman became, for many years, a visual symbol of ultimate subjugation and imprisonment of the individual will.   The world today looks on with a mixture of hope and despair as women in Afghanistan continue to be victims of violence, of half-heartedly fulfilled pledges, and weakly implemented laws, and wonders if all the investment in women’s rights really made any difference.
As an Afghan woman, and the representative of a non-governmental organisation that works for the protection and promotion of women’s rights, I have witnessed unimaginable levels of resilience and strength amongst the women I have met.  No discrimination, violence, or deprivation has been able to beat down the spirit of the Afghan woman, who has risen from every fall with renewed determination and courage.  The same father who hangs his head with embarrassment at the news of the birth of a girl, the brother who conceals the very existence of his sister, have known the under-valued women in their lives to take on responsibilities of entire families when the men died, abandoned their responsibilities, or sank into despair or drugs in the face of odds.  At such times it has been the so-called weak and vulnerable women who stood up and kept the business of life going.
A colleague, who is a prominent women’s rights activist and one of several daughters, describes being discriminated against by her own family and given less opportunity to develop.  However, like many others, she used her personal strength to fight the status quo, and today, is the head of an Afghan women’s organisation. 
We have a member of staff whose husband abandoned her with two little kids and married another woman.  She is barely literate and very poor, but she did not throw up her hands and give up; she continues to struggle and work to support her children. 
Today the condition of the Afghan woman is far from ideal, but she is no longer just a nameless, faceless mute victim of unjust traditions.   Millions of women and girls are getting an education, thousands are financially independent, and hundreds of women are networking, calling attention to the issues of violence and discrimination against women and in doing so facing threats to themselves and their families.  I believe women are coming to the realization that no one will give them their rights; they must reach out and take them as human beings, as Muslims and as citizens.  The way to get there is through education – for both men and women.   A strong, educated mother will result in strong, educated children.  
Afghan men have also come a long way, but they still need reminding that women are of equal wisdom and worth and should be given the same opportunities. Afghan women have the right to participate in all peace and security discussions about their country and the participation of Afghan women at this London Conference is crucial to it success.
Since the challenges Afghanistan faces affect both men and women, both men and women need to be part of the solutions.  One half of the population cannot decide on behalf of the entire population of the country.  I would like our international partners to acknowledge the progress Afghan women have made in the past decade.  To trust our sense of purpose and determination, knowing that we are on the path of self-realisation, and believe that we must be part of the conversation to determine the strategy best suited to our reality and context.     
I am proud my organisation will be there to represent Afghan women at the Ayenda conference, the civil society segment of the London Conference on Afghanistan. Ayenda means 'Future' in Dari. The future for Afghanistan's women and girls is at stake and London is our chance to tell the world that and plead for continued support.  
On 3rd December, BAAG (British & Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group) will bring together over 200 professionals from leading Afghan and international charities, development and rights organisations, including Christian Aid partner AWEC in the Ayenda Conference.  You can find out more here.

Notes to editors:

1. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in around 50 countries at any one time. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people to live a full life, free from poverty. We provide urgent, practical and effective assistance in tackling the root causes of poverty as well as its effects.

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