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Women’s voices in Afghanistan rise above the violence

KUNDUZ: Afghanistan – one of the most dangerous countries to work in as a journalist – is in the global spotlight this week after an attack in Kabul killed nine Afghan photographers and reporters just days before World Press Freedom Day. Outside of Kabul, the dangers of reporting the news, particularly as a woman, have never been so apparent.

When a local official barged into her Kunduz office recently to express concern about the lack of security, news director Sediqa Sherzai faced the stark challenges associated with her female reporters trying to run two radio stations and a television channel under constant threat not only from insurgents but also from men who do not want women to work in the media.

“He told me that I should hire my own security guards,” she said. “I asked him why the government could not protect us in the middle of a big city, and he said that was not his problem.”

That is just one of Sediqa’s challenges as a news director, and as a woman, in a conservative and war-torn country. Along with four of her young reporters inside an austere studio, Sediqa’s most pressing priority is helping Afghan women be heard in the country’s elections slated for October this year.

In this volatile province with some territory beyond government control, women say they fear to speak to the media and talk about human rights, much less advocate openly for democracy and change. Even Sediqa and her staff of women shy away from photographs, cautiously protecting their identities.

Elections are considered essential to solidify fragile the social and human rights advances made during the last 17 years. The struggle for full women’s suffrage in Afghanistan, reminiscent of similar fights in centuries past in other nations, has gained broader international support in the last two decades. Pushing for change, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has supported initiatives that offer space for Afghan women from across all sectors of society to advocate against oppression and conflict, and also to stand up for basic human rights, including their own right to vote.

UNAMA’s chief, Tadamichi Yamamoto, said on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day that the UN continues to push for the government “to implement measures to improve journalist safety and foster an open media where no voice is silenced through fear.”

Sediqa said the unwritten code to silence women runs deep here in Kunduz. “Women don’t want to talk because they are under threat, but also because of traditional restrictions, including fathers and husbands forbidding them from talking,” said Sediqa.

As news director in a city besieged by war, she faces the dilemma of trying to dispatch reporters to the hinterlands from the two radio stations and one TV station she heads. “We can’t say we are accurately reflecting the views of women when even our own female reporters are under constant threat,” she said.

Even if Kunduz, a bustling city of some 500,000 citizens, weren’t surrounded by near-constant conflict, there would be immense obstacles still standing in the way of women’s full participation in democracy, say media officials and human rights advocates.

“This is a pervasive issue across our society as even highly literate men in business and in government don’t want their women to vote,” said Lida Sherzad, an advocate working with the Afghanistan Women’s Network (AWN). “There is an immense price to pay in terms of psychological damage and pressure on women, including their children, and these mothers are asking me why they should even participate in elections if no one is protecting them.”

The right for women to vote goes hand in hand with several of AWN’s priorities, which include leadership, peace, security and legal protection. Lida’s AWN efforts include creating new social networks and uniting different groups of women in a common effort to speak out for women’s leadership and to end violence against women.

She has discovered that, in lieu of face-to-face meetings, expanded access to social media is helping unite women across northern Afghanistan. “One of our greatest challenges is how to involve women and youth in a discussion of the importance of having their voices heard and participating in the democratic process,” she said.

Women’s rights advocates say that while progress has been slow at times, the last 17 years have witnessed immense gains for Afghan women, whom the Taliban relegated to their homes and prevented from obtaining an education during their rule in late 90s and through most of 2001. “We want Afghan women to become role models through political participation,” she added. “When they do that, they compete and succeed, often more than men in their chosen professions.”

Afghanistan is a signatory of the UN conventions on human rights, including those on the rights of women and girls. Women’s empowerment on the political front leads to a greater awareness of human rights, according to other advocates.

“We are trying to bridge the connection between human rights, capacity building and leadership,” said Beheshta Edizada, a rights advocate and reporter with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Beheshta says she sees her role in advocating against discrimination as an effort still constrained both by a lack of understanding and by women’s inability to move.

“Afghanistan has a high percentage of illiteracy, particularly among women,” she said. “Women suffer greatly, especially in rural areas, where they are not always aware of their rights. In this regard we find it useful also to enlighten men with the help of local leaders open to the idea of greater female participation. In our field visits outside the city, we focus on human rights, including access to education and health care – as well as on the upcoming elections.”

Empowering women and encouraging their voices at the table and at the ballot box is inseparable from the greater struggle for human rights, said the young advocate, who provided an example of how social media can work to empower and protect. Some months back when a woman in a remote district was severely beaten by a group of men, she was sent to the hospital and was forced into hiding, but eventually a video tape of her beating emerged on social media and the severity of her case was revealed to the public.

“Through networking and empowerment, her case has become an example to women about courage and a tale of shame for the men who beat her so severely,” said Beheshta.

About this Feature Story: The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is mandated to support the people and government of Afghanistan in the shared goal of becoming a stable, open, and peaceful nation. This news feature tells a human interest story related to how Afghanistan and the UN are working together to overcome the many challenges to achieving this goal.

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