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Programme Action Panel Session – Hasina Safi

London 2023 Conference 3-4 November 2023 - Climate for Change

Blog by Abby Younis, SI Crosby, South Lancashire

“I am not hopeless. I am hopeful”

As women, no matter what our background, we each have a story to tell because, from the beginning of time, all we have ever done is fight for our rights. We have been oppressed, abused, accused, denied, or called to account in one form or another. When we find ourselves in these situations, we have two options, we can either give into our situation or circumstance, or, we can become agents of change. Hasina Safi is an agent of change.

When I was asked to write a blog on Hasina, I was fascinated to hear her story, for many reasons, the main one being that we come from similar ‘Pathan’ (a person originating from Afghanistan) backgrounds. Although we would have led parallel lives we would have been brought up on the same values; we would have the same Pathan strength of character (Pathan women are very strong and brave) and we would have both lived our lives with the sword of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ dangling from the top of our heads. We know all too well that each and every decision we make in life will impact what another woman or girl from our community can or can’t do.

Hasina addressed the conference by giving a brief history of what now appears to be the golden era in the Afghan women’s movement. A time when there were women judges and lawyers and policewomen. A time when the Women’s Ministry led the Commission on the Elimination of Violence against Women, a time when there was support for women suffering domestic abuse, and family response units.

During this 20-year period, Afghan women created awareness of violence against women. This began with defining what violence actually was and educating women that the treatment they had become conditioned to was not ‘normal’. Domestic abuse was not normal; being denied access to health care was not normal; being denied access to education was not normal. Women’s voices were heard which led to capacity building, advocacy for women’s rights, and meaningful participation.

Hasina told us that Afghanistan was the first country in the region to sign up for the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and this was supported by an article in their very own Constitution which stated that in the eyes of the law, men and women were equal.

This all disappeared when the Taliban returned to power two years ago. The Women’s Ministry was dissolved, and most professional women were forced underground.  Only female doctors and teachers were allowed to continue but even their lives were made difficult.

During this time women who fell out of line with the Taliban regime risked punishments such as having their noses or ears cut off, acid attacks, or worse – they risked their lives. Today, Hasina told us, there are 3 categories of women in Afghanistan:

  1. The wives and mothers: De-humanised women who are reduced to producing children, feeding their families, and sleeping with their husbands
  2. The fighters: The women who risk their lives every day in the fight for women’s rights and empowerment
  3. The widows: Imprisoned in their own homes and often left with no option but to sacrifice their daughters in marriage to secure safety for the rest of their family.

Hasina asked for all Soroptimists to:

  1. Stand in solidarity with their Afghan sisters by putting pressure on any powerful and decisive platforms we have access to.
  2. Ensure monitoring and accountability of international instruments such as CEDAW through coordinated and consistent efforts based on fact-based information.
  3. Use their voices in the United Nations through our consultative status to bring about change.

There was some light relief as Hasina spoke of the small underground parties that are held to lift spirits. Small celebrations of birthdays or anniversaries which go a long way. During the 16 Days of Activism, she plans for her Club (SI Weybridge & District) to partner up with 16 Clubs to promote the plight of Afghan women and share messages of hope from each of these Clubs with the women in Afghanistan.

Hasina urged the delegates that although she was grateful for the solidarity of her international sisters, this was not enough. Having the Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration 1995 was not enough. What was required was accountability and quality of output- what was the point of signing declaration after declaration when countries were not held to account? Her vision is to see Afghanistan feature in the agreed conclusions at the next Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)

I understand Hasina’s frustration. I was at Commission on the Status of Women 67 in New York, this year, and although I attended a session with Azra Jafari, the first female Mayor of Afghanistan (who flew the flag of Afghanistani women, admirably) – what was very sad and very evident was that there was a lack of focus on the women in Afghanistan – it was as if they had been forgotten.

Every day brings conflict and hardship for our fellow sisters across the world. We have wars, we have fires, we have floods – each time the focus shifts from one tragedy to another. It begs the question – ‘How do address the new issues without forgetting about the existing ones?’ If you ask me we ensure we carry on, we ensure we don’t stop. As long as we don’t stop, we won’t forget and we WILL make a difference. Nothing is impossible.

In conclusion, I would like to say that in the title of this blog are Hasina’s words – ‘I am not hopeless, I am hopeful’ and I would like to end with a spin on these words…as women:

‘We are not hopeless. We are hopeful!’

As the full house standing ovation showed on Saturday 3rd November 2023, the Soroptimists of Great Britain and Ireland believe in you, Hasina Safi and we stand in support of the women of Afghanistan!