I started my journey for women’s rights when I was in the 8th grade. Even back then people questioned my work when I encouraged my fellow girls to continue with their education. At the time most girls in Afghanistan were not allowed to study beyond grade six. Some people looked with disdain at me and my family, they hurled abuse at us. They did this firstly for allowing me and my siblings to go to school, and secondly, because I was doing my bit for the girls in my community.
A career dedicated to empowering women
My family has always been my inspiration, particularly my parents who encouraged me to roll up my sleeves and work hard to improve the dire situation of women in society. Seeing poverty, violence, and the lack of regard for women’s rights and education made me decide to start working with girls in my community. Slowly I expanded my work to other communities helping women find their rightful place in society, free from violence and discrimination.
In my career I have trained more than 2,000 women to become advocates of women’s and children’s rights.
These were women who were from the community and were mostly not involved with any organization or government, but started working to improve the situation of women and children of their own accord. My story has also inspired many girls to finish secondary school and enroll in university. When they see me, people can see that if women finish university they can become stronger arms of their families and drag their families out of poverty.
Today I work for a NGO in Afghanistan that is dedicated to helping vulnerable children – especially those who have been victims of violence. My typical day starts at dawn: I prepare breakfast, get my children ready for school and go to the office. Sometimes if a sexual harassment or violence case comes up, I leave the office to review the case. But it can be difficult to go out into the community because many people believe women should be confined to their houses and have no business outside the sanctity of their homes. One of the biggest challenges in my work is security. If something happens to a man, people pity the family because they believe it was his duty to provide for his family. But if the same incident happens to a woman, some people might blame her for leaving the house or even say that this is what she deserves.
On #MeToo and the power of people
I’ve heard about #MeToo but unfortunately, such a thing has not happened in Afghanistan. Publicly, women do not come forward to report violence or sexual harassment, but we do have safe houses for girls and women who have gone through violence and sexual exploitation. I hope that one day something like #MeToo could become common in Afghanistan and people could raise their voices against violence and abuse.
There are immense social taboos facing women and girls in my country. The concept that women have rights is not widely understood and respected. Society must be made aware of the rights of women and this can happen through media, through civil society and the relevant organizations.
I think that ordinary people are the ones that can back women’s rights and help women to be safe in their communities. This can happen if we work with people and make sure that everyone understands that they can safeguard girls and protect them from violence and sexual exploitation.
Zarmina Behroz is 53-year-old social worker and activist for the rights of children and women in Afghanistan. She has dedicated her career to fighting gender inequality and supporting girls and women who have been victims of violence and abuse.
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