Meet 16 brave women human rights defenders from Afghanistan

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

Amnesty International is working with Woman Human Rights Defenders in Afghanistan to their showcase rare, powerful stories. From big cities to most remote and insecure provinces in Afghanistan, 16 WHRDs have shared their stories of success, challenges and hopes for the future. From today on, till December 10, their stories will be published one a day. Their profiles capture only a fraction of what these activists have accomplished and the challenges they have faced.

Here are the stories of 16 unbelievably brave women, who are standing up for their rights, other women’s rights, pushing boundaries set by patriarchal customs and facing down threats from the Taliban and other armed groups. Despite the grave risks they face, these women continue to challenge everyone and everything that violates women’s rights because they know that the small steps they take today, will pave the way for another girl go far tomorrow.

Day sixteen – Kawkaba Nowruzi

I have served the community as a midwife for around 18 years, in the most rural districts of Ghazni province. As a midwife, I have braved Taliban controlled areas to reach out to women who are not allowed to visit clinics when they are pregnant and unwell, and saved the lives of many women and children. Most of these cases involve a battle with the husbands to give first aid to the women and transport them to a hospital.

The situation for women in Ghazni province is hostile. I have seen women being sold like goods and livestock, and this situation continues even today. Women still fight for property inheritances they are entitled to, while also fighting forced marriages, being married off for a ‘bride price’, ‘badal’ marriages where women are exchanged as brides between families – and the list continues. The few women who succeed in getting employed in government departments, unfortunately, get their jobs reassigned to tribal elders, leaving them helpless, unable to fight the injustices.

There have been instances when I was on duty, examining people in a house in a rural village, me and my colleague realized that the family was planning on handing us over to the Taliban, who didn’t approve of the work we were doing as midwives. I had to climb off the wall of their back garden with the help of my colleague and run to the nearest police post to send a large troop to rescue her. That’s just one incident of many.

Still, I fight, I’m hopeful that women in Afghanistan one day will wake up to a better world.

Day fifteen – Haleema Saroor

Though I run my own organization now, fighting the women’s struggle in Afghanistan, for thirteen years I worked on various projects aimed at uplifting the situation of women in Helmand. Fighting this battle is a daily struggle for me as there are many women living in rural parts of Helmand who have not even heard of human rights and other activists face the daily challenge of reaching out to these women with the limited resources available to us.

From 2016 to 2017, I researched the condition of women’s prisons in five provinces of Afghanistan, identified the problems, investigated them and came up with a plan of action to resolve them – a Penal Code System Policy – along with representatives from the Ministry of Women Affairs, the Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Justice, the Law faculty at Kabul University, and the Attorney General’s Office. The report has been completed and handed over to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs for implementation.

I published the same prison investigation report in three languages and sent it to all provinces, and to most of the universities in Kabul, ministries and other government offices, and a number of embassies.

I hope for women to feel safe and secure in Afghanistan, to empower them financially and make it possible for them to find employment without facing any harassment. To achieve that, I would like to see women educate themselves in any field they like.

Day fourteen – Hasina Saifi Rastgaar

As a lawyer by profession, I focus on raising awareness among my clients on women’s rights. The human rights situation in Farah Province has been a serious concern with the armed insurgents and other non-state actors violating the rights of the public. This situation has resulted in creating worse living conditions for women. Violence against women has increased daily. Women’s rights are not respected, and women are subjected to physical assaults, child marriages and marrying off girls in baad (exchange marriages), lack of or no access to education, and not paying alimony.
To address these issues, I am a constant mission to make people aware of their rights. I intervene in domestic cases as well, while advocating for the rights of women and children on a broader scale – such as convincing parents to accepts their daughters’ divorces, who are in miserable marriages being subjected to domestic violence.
As a women’s rights advocate, my expectation for Afghan women is to become more educated and to become more aware of their rights. I want to see them in a situation where they can defend their rights, and not let anyone inflict any kind of violence on them. I also hope that Afghan men will one day help Afghan women get better access to education, and live in a society that doesn’t oppress women – men not becoming oppressors, and women not becoming oppressed because of their illiteracy and ignorance of their rights.

Day thirteen – Jamila Saadat

Amnesty International

I work as the President and Director of the Handicraft and Carpet Weaving Institute for Afghan women to promote economic growth and well-being of destitute and displaced women, who are deprived of their education due to various problems. That has been my work for the last 13 years – promoting economic growth, women’s well-being and defending the rights of those women who are not fully aware of their rights

I have confronted many challenges though there are achievements that I’m proud of as well. I have convinced several families who did not want their wives to work or study outdoors, to allow their wives to go out to work, and their daughters to go to school.

The general situation of human rights in Nangarhar Province is poor, particularly in the remote areas. Security problems, lack of opportunities for women’s education, denial of access to justice, violence against women, and fear of being victimized in businesses are serious challenges for women in this province.

Afghan women are half of Afghanistan’s 35 million population. Hence, Afghan women should have equal rights same as other citizens of Afghanistan. Ensuring security, peace, justice and social welfare, women’s access to education and work, increasing women’s participation in judicial affairs and a society free from violence are my hopes and expectations.

Day twelve: Nooria Safi

I work as the director of Women’s Capacity Building and Development and Board Member of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN). I am also a board member for National Coalition Board, Women’s Network Board on Good Governance and Human Trafficking Network Board.

It has been challenging to work on human rights issues in Kunduz province when it fell to the Taliban three times, leaving the lives and property of the people in the area at their mercy, as well as human rights defenders exposed to severe risks of being identified and punished by the Taliban for their work. I have faced many challenges, at home and at the workplace, from beatings to death threats due to my work as an activist.

The traditional society, poverty, the low literacy level of women, a lack of knowledge of Islam and the law of the country, the presence of warlords and the mafia, violence against women – such as assault, murder, rape – and a lack of access to legal assistance make the situation of women in Kunduz bleak. But amidst all this, I have tried to change many lives for the better.

I firmly believe that Afghan women need to be supported, especially women’s rights activists, to continue with the positive changes we have made so far. I call on the international donors to widen their social protection framework to enable us to work more broadly to institutionalize human rights and women’s rights.

Day eleven: Najeeba Sadaat

I’m the Logar focal point for the Afghan Women’s Network, through which I have, for years, tried to improve the conditions for women in the Province. I’m also the Head of the Teacher Training Centre in Logar, through which we try to encourage girls’ education.
I have 18 years of experience working in many fields as an activist, but my best achievement is
encouraging women and girls to start or continue with their education, mediating with the families who do not believe in girls’ education, and convincing them to send their girls to school. I have found employment for more than 85 women in the area and even rented a vehicle for a girl to go to university because it is situated far from her home.
One can say that I’ve lived it all during my time as an activist, even had my safety compromised, but my struggle continues. Logar Province has a poor record of protecting human rights, as oppression and cruelty reigns, so I resort to any measure, change of tactics and approaches, such as wearing the hijab at times even, if that would allow me to continue with my work.
I have one hope for the future and that is to raise awareness among women and empower them to be able to participate in all fields of work and defend their rights on their own.

Day ten: Sara Seerat

I am in charge of the Social and Cultural Institute of Women with a Mission, head the Association of Women Journalists, a Member of the Youth Parliament, and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Al-Biruni. In 2018, I contested for the House of Representatives from Kapisa. We activists have one ideology in common and that is to serve and help the people.
Some elements of human rights have improved in Kapisa though there are issues such as girls’ access to education and the right to free will which are much neglected. Poverty and unemployment have increased in the area along with incidents of so-called “honour” killings. There is also a significant imbalance in the proportion of the number of women with necessary education qualifications and employment opportunities for women. Despite continuous advocacy, women are yet to be offered key government posts. Also, there are no employment prospects for women with lower standards of education. Women in businesses find it difficult to sell their products in markets and bazars, unable reserve stalls for themselves.
I believe that a lot more can be achieved with adequate funding and government support. And I hope that one day, they will be able to put an end to the discrimination and violence faced by women, and instead acknowledge women’s achievements, and give more priority for women especially in rural districts to voice their opinion.

Day nine: Marzia Rustami

As the Manager of the Afghan Women’s Network in Kunduz, my work on women’s rights is multi-faceted but I focus a lot on the capacity building projects I conduct to empower women. Along with other human rights defenders in the area, I promote women’s rights and social justice, encourage women on political participation and engage in local government, and to work on key, decision making positions in the government and private organisations. 

I have noticed that these days more and more families are accepting girls taking part in politics and litigation, following the precedent set by other activists in the area – though there are many issues that violates women’s rights in Kunduz such as forced marriages, underage marriages, marriage ‘exchange’, physical, emotional and psychological violence inflicted on women, humiliation by the police as well as prosecutors in court rooms.

Though there are ups and downs in my struggles, when I manage to stand and fight through the ashes of war, I am confident that the next generation will be better fighters and will be able to go far because of my efforts today. However, all of these efforts will amount to nothing unless the government and the international organizations give enough support to safeguard today’s achievements for the betterment of the future.

Day eight: Aqila Nawrozi

As a human rights defender, I have worked in various roles to support women in Daikundi. As a focal point of Afghan Women Network, I tried to lobby for improving the status of women in Daikundi coordinating with governmental and non-governmental organizations. I also worked as a deputy of Social Council, deputy of the Development Council Secretary of the Advisory Board of Neli, an Organisation that works with the Municipality.

I think the human rights situation in Daikundi has improved. Women’s awareness of their rights has increased. Women are making their own decisions to enter politics, to access justice and to start businesses. However, there are still challenges in province, where girls are not allowed to go to school and pregnant women are not able to reach a hospital in time to give birth. There are three districts in Daikundi where schools are closed due to the security situation.

One of the achievements that I can be proud of is that I tirelessly advocate for women attorneys in the appellate attorney office of Daikundi Province and, as result, three women attorneys are now working in the province. This encourages women to refer their legal issues to the judiciary without fear. I also advocated for a gymnasium in the city for girls, as they are not allowed to play sports or take part in any social events held in open spaces due to social and cultural constraints.

I hope that women in Afghanistan will be aware of their rights one day, leaving no place for discrimination against them, and people in marginalized areas get all their rights and privileges.

Day seven: Zarqa Yaftali

I’m the Director of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation. I have more than 12 years of experience working as a Women and Children’s Rights Defender and am also a member of various national civil society organisations and advocacy committees, including the Board of Women Defenders Regional Network, and Secretariat of the Civil Society Joint Task Force.

Every civic achievement is a source of pride for all civil society activists. I have had many accomplishments with my team over the years, one of which is the criminalization of sexual harassment against women and children in Afghanistan. Since then, we have launched three research papers on the prevalence of sexual harassment against women and girls. We also launched an anti-sexual harassment website for the first time in Afghanistan. Through advocacy, campaigns, training and litigation programmes, we were able to draft the Regulation on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment against Women. Once the regulation was adopted into the domestic legal system, we worked with the Women’s Affairs Commission and the Civil Society, and the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission on drafting the Law on Prohibition of Abuse on Women and Children.

I hope that by strengthening the rule of law, peace and public accountability will be ensured, and that one day the country can ensure the protection of human rights defenders, and women’s rights. I expect that the international partners, the Afghan government and the civil society activists will act in collaboration to make this a reality soon.

Day six: Gul Makai Sultanzada

As a lawyer by profession, I have faced many challenges, including receiving written warnings from the Taliban and senior government officials because of my work on human rights. I fight battles with the Taliban almost every day and am known for resolving issues with them. I believe that 40% of human rights violations occur in Kandahar due to illiteracy and patriarchy.

I have been a defence lawyer for a decade now. I am the first woman in Kandahar to work as a defense lawyer and become the chair of the Bar Association. While I face discrimination daily, I continue my work as a lawyer. I remember chairing the Bar Association for eleven years without a salary, whereas the Independent Bar Association recently started a salary scheme for the post when a man was appointed as the chair.

As an activist I spend my earnings to support children who are addicted to drugs. I believe they need it the most.

As a woman she hopes for a society that does not violate the Islamic rights of women.

Day five: Geeta Sayeed

The situation of human rights in this province is miserable and people live in a very bad state. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, non-state armed groups and conflict have worsened the situation. The implementation and acceptance of women’s rights in the province is no better. I remember very recent incidents where three women committed suicide due to domestic violence and a few other women were put on trial and punished by the Taliban.

Women in Faryab province experience forced marriages, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, negative superstition, the dominance of the Taliban in some districts of the province and, most importantly, a lack of implementation of the law in bringing perpetrators to justice.

My hope is for every Afghan woman to be literate and be aware of their rights. Every woman should be a defender of women’s rights.

Day four: Zahra Karamat

The situation for women in Kunar province is slowly changing I have been working as a Gender Officer for three years in the Office of Social Services for Women – striving to create equality between men and women. That has been my objective as an activist, carrying out capacity building programmes for women and encouraging them to work in different sectors. But the most important work I do is getting women to believe in themselves. 

In Herat, some aspects of human rights are much better than other provinces. However, there are many rural areas where women are deprived of their basic rights. Despite ongoing efforts to uplift the situation of women, I think that what’s being done is not enough to support these women in the rural areas. 

The biggest challenge I face working on human rights in Herat is from the mullahs who do not accept women working on human and civil rights. The volatile security situation in the province adds to this challenge. I try to practice patience and fortitude towards those who are ignorant of human rights and the importance of the work I do.  Also, without being naive about these challenges, I reach out to the government authorities on personal security with each risk I encounter.

I am one of the few activists in Herat who has travelled to the farthest corners of the province, trying to engage with women and men who are not enjoying even their basic human rights. It’s a struggle to fight injustices and discrimination, but do I hope that we do not encounter challenges significant enough to push us back, and to continue with the work, to uplift the situation of women in Afghanistan.

Day three: Arzoo Nizam

I myself was a victim of several restrictions women in Afghanistan face when my family didn’t allow me to get a job. But today, in addition to being the Deputy Director of the Organization of Afghan Women Capacity and Knowledge, which works on women’s capacity building and elimination of violence against women, I’m also working as a defense attorney for the last ten years. I take special interest in individual cases, visit homes of women who are victims, speak to the men in their families and, at times with the help of the Directorate of Women’s Affairs, try to raise awareness on women’s rights and resolve disputes.

The situation for women in Kunar province is slowly changing with women actively participating in awareness raising and development programmes and working in offices in the cities. However, Kunar is also known for human rights violations, especially against women and girls. Women have limited access to education, healthcare and employment. They are not aware of their rights and have no access to information about their rights either. 

 As a defense lawyer, I hope the sacrifices other activists and I have made will bring hope, joy and happiness to others. I also wish that we will be able to continue to work on women’s rights without losing hope. My last wish is that all Afghan women, wherever they are, will find a way towards salvation from all the problems and challenges they face.

Day two: Maria Raheen

I am the director of the Journalism and Mass Communication Unit at Balkh University. I also head a non-governmental organization that works on human rights. For 20 years, as a women’s rights activist, I have pushed to address issues that prevent women from accessing their rights, not only in Balkh but also in other neighbouring provinces such as Samangan, Jowzjan, and Faryab.

One of my achievements is the establishment of the first private university in Balkh – Taj Higher Education Institute, which offers medicine, economy and law. Similar to Kabul, Herat and Kandahar, Balkh has some developments and achievements in terms of women’s rights. However, the province is still well known for the presence of armed groups, the local mafia and warlords, who have no respect for human rights. Due to existing challenges and the weak rule of law, self-censorship is embedded in the day-to-day lives of people in Balkh.

I am no stranger to tolerating injustices, especially when it is a matter of saving my life and my family’s lives. It gets challenging especially when it involves former war commanders who are now elected representatives of the area and, who would not hesitate to exert their power to commit crimes.

I hope in future like-minded women will join hands for the women’s revolution in Afghanistan, to reclaim the rights that we are entitled to.

Day one: Khawar Amiri

I am the Head of the Literacy Department of the Directorate of Education in Khost Province and have worked for many years as a mediator for women’s issues. As most women of Khost Province are illiterate, and some districts are yet to establish schools for girls, through the Literacy Department, I have conducted courses for women and girls above the age of 14 to enable their basic reading and writing skills. As a well-known human rights defender, I have worked in solving many of women’s issues through the Committee on Elimination of Violence against Women and tribal Jirgas (councils), with help of the police.

Women in Khost are exposed to discrimination and violence. Girls’ education is till grade six, after which they are sent off to marriage or asked to stay home. Forced marriages, being sold off, physical violence, lack of access to inheritance rights are some of the issues women face on daily basis.  Women don’t work in government posts in Khost, as most of the positions are held by men. Women are discouraged from applying for government positions as their posts are given to men and justified with unlawful reasons for not being appointed.

I have intervened in many cases of women being abused, sometimes solving the case with the help of local elders and at times through direct mediation. One of my biggest successes is organizing a Master’s Degree programme for women in Khost to study in India, funded by the US Embassy. Despite being threatened and attacked, I am continuing my activism.

I hope women are independent, have security, and have equal opportunities for studies, get to live a life free from violence. 

In solidarity with the WHRDs in Afghanistan; Who risk their lives daily so that girls can go to school, Who are threatened by the Taliban because they are encouraging pregnant women to go to a hospital for the delivery, Who are defenceless in walking into the Taliban controlled areas, speaking of women’s rights, Who have been branded as the problems in the society for speaking in support of women’s employment, Who are vulnerable in their own homes for being lone soldiers of women’s rights in their areas, Who take a sigh of relief when women they empowered go into litigation, start businesses, finish education, and stand up for their own rights.

Show your solidarity

Send a solidarity message to all of the 16 WHRDs in Afghanistan featured, or any one of them, and let them know that they are not alone. Please email your thoughts in a personal message to [email protected] and we will share them with the activists.

Solidarity email template:

I’m writing to express my solidarity with Women Human Rights Defenders in Afghanistan. Your stories inspired me greatly. It is disheartening to hear the situation of women’s rights in Afghanistan but your stories show that there are strong, brave people like you who do not tolerate injustices. I stand with you.

#InSolidarity #WHRDs #BRAVE #16DaysOfActivism