The Young Women for Change is an independent grassroots organization in Afghanistan encouraging youth to fight for gender inequality and empower women to stand up against violation and abuse. The organization was founded by 20 year old Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary, in April 2011. In less than one year, they have over 50 volunteers in three different provinces of Afghanistan. Haidary and Akbar believe that young women and men of Afghanistan have the potential to bring change in the mentalities of people about women and all they need is a little push. With that belief, they started the YWC. I got a chance to interview the incredibly inspiring Noorjahan Akbar:
What have you accomplished so far and what are the goals of Young women for change?
• We have begun to conduct the largest and first research on street harassment in the city of Kabul. We have surveyed over 1500 people so far.
• We have created a documentary on street harassment and it has been screened in various parts of the city.
• We had the first-ever walk against street harassment in July 14, during which we were covered by over 30 international and national media outlets.
• We have begun classes of literacy and English language for women.
• We have debate sessions in learning institutions on street harassment and violence against women.
• We have held five public lectures on issues relevant to women and gender.
• We have covered the walls of Kabul with over 700 posters on violence and discrimination against women.
• We have had tens of radio and TV debates on street harassment and other issues relevant to women.
• We have worked with religious leaders to persuade them to talk against violence during preaches.
• We have held a poster exhibition to raise awareness on women’s issues and raise funds for a harassment-free internet café for women in Kabul.
• We have helped several women, including Gulnaz and Sahar Gul, with advocacy for their legal cases or with finding lawyers, fundraising for legal costs, etc.
What are the biggest challenges for women in Afghanistan since 2001? What kind of improvements have you seen?
The biggest challenge is lack of safety for women. Be it street harassment, verbally or by touching physically, i.e. groping, slapping, etc, to acid attacks and kidnappings to rape, lack of safety has led to little participation of women in the society and it has discouraged many women from working, studying, etc. The number of women in governmental offices has decreased by 25% in the last three years, due to harassment and lack of safety, including safe transportation and workplace safety. The majority of adolescent girls still drop school, because of long trips to schools, lack of safety on the way and harassment in the schools themselves.
Tell us a little bit about your Male Advocacy group? What is their role in YWC?
Our Male Advocacy Group talk to men about issues regarding to women and publicly speak about the importance of supporting women’s rights to be role models for other men. They also do TV and radio interviews to encourage other men to speak out and arrange events to promote men’s involvement in gaining women’s rights.
How do you educate men on women’s rights?
By involving other men in the advocacy and by raising awareness about women’s rights according to Islam. We use a variety of methods, which include distributing pamphlets, creating radio spots and documentaries, holding lectures, exhibitions and debates, putting posters on the walls of the cities, using social media, etc and in all of this we involve men, who will speak against violating women’s rights and become role-models for young boys on how to treat women.
About 90% of Afghan women face violence, how do you help women overcome?
We help women who have complaints against violence to register their cases and get legal help to gain justice. We help women by raising awareness about violence in the society to decrease it. We also talk to women to empower them enough to tell their stories and stand up against violence. A big portion of our work is also promoting literacy using women’s rights topics. In our literacy classes, we teach women to not use violence against other women and in our debates, we work with men to teach them to respect women’s rights and to raise their awareness on the importance of women’s contribution to the society and how violence can decrease that contribution.
How have education rights for women changed Afghanistan?
Yes. More women are going to school, but not nearly enough. Even now, the average years of schooling for girls are 3-4 years and only one in ten girls graduates high school. Even now, only 30% of the teachers are female, which means in the conservative rural areas girls are less likely to go to school because they are not allowed to interact with male teachers.
What is the biggest problem for Afghan women in regards to reaching equality (government, religious, cultural, men)?
The culture of misogyny and the belief that women are inferior to men. This belief has been installed not only in men, but also in women, which is why in so many cases of violence; women also contribute to violence against other women. We need to change that mentality and we can do it by educating the men and empowering the women so they see their self-worth.
How do you see the process of democracy moving forward in Afghanistan?
Very slowly and it will not grow faster unless women are fully part of this process as well. If the 50% is ignored for more, the process of bring a democracy in Afghanistan will be prolonged even more.
Do you believe a western democracy in Afghanistan will work OR does Afghanistan need to implement a different version for this new system to work?
Some forms of democracy have always existed in Afghanistan, but the problem has been that they were tribal forms of democracy that lead to separation of power across the country instead of building a nation. Democracy is impossible in Afghanistan, unless a strong sense of national benefit and national identity is created amongst the youth to replace the tribal values that exist now.
What is your opinion about the international troops leaving in 2014?
I believe that it will be a step back for Afghan women. In short, it will endanger women’s safety and their achievements. However, regardless, I know that there are a large number of Afghan men and women who have seen freedom and will never again submit to injustice. I know that there are men and women in this country who will fight for what they believe in regardless of who is in power.
What are your needs from the international community? How can we help you?
Do advocacy with us. Raise awareness not only about the problems we face, but about the brave women who are fighting inequality every day. Don’t let anyone forget Afghanistan or the era of Taliban will be repeated.