Saturday, March 8 is International Women’s Day, which has been observed for more than 100 years. Equal rights, education, empowerment and independence for women and girls — all over the world — are the cornerstone of the day, tenets that ChildFund supports. Mahdia, the Afghani woman interviewed here, declined to have her photo published because she was worried about her husband and male relatives’ reaction to her likeness being seen by people outside the ChildFund Afghanistan office, particularly men.
A huge smile lights up Mahdia’s face as she reads a sentence from her Dari book, which teaches phrases in the language used in Mahdia’s community.
Mahdia is one of ChildFund Afghanistan’s cleaners and, like the majority of Afghani women, she is illiterate. Two times a week, she and I sit together, as we are taken through the intricacies of the Dari language in our quest to read and write it. She has an advantage over me in that she can speak the language, but as for the rest of the tasks, we both struggle.
For the rest of the day and ensuing days, the ever-present smile gets bigger and bigger, and there is a sense of something different about her — a confidence that is slowly uncoiling and emerging like the blooming of a flower.
Like Mahdia, I come from a poor background, but the difference between our somewhat parallel lives is that I was able to receive an education. Also, I was born in the country that, in 1893, became the first in the world to give women the right to vote. Today’s New Zealand women benefit from the struggle in which our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers succeeded in ensuring equal opportunities for women. In fact, if you were to ask New Zealand men how they perceive the rights and opportunities for New Zealand females, they would more than likely tell you it is 60 percent/40 percent in favor of women.
Afghanistan’s women were awarded the right to vote in 1964. The new constitution established in 2004 states, “Any kind of discrimination and privilege between the citizens of Afghanistan is prohibited. The citizens of Afghanistan — whether man or woman — have equal rights and duties before the law.” But despite having the ability to vote and having a constitution that notes gender equality, the majority of Afghani women have not seen many significant improvements in their lives. Indeed, Afghanistan is recognized as being one of the most dangerous countries to be a female.
It is estimated that 75 percent of Afghani women have no education. The average lifespan of women is 49 years; 85 percent of women face, or have faced, abuse or physical violence. And Afghanistan still has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Early marriage is extremely common as well.
Most women and girls face precarious prospects in a highly fragile environment buffeted by low economic performance and high poverty, food insecurity, as well as high levels of insecurity and exclusion on account of gender.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and reflect on the progress made so far in the quest to achieve equality for women and girls worldwide, we also recognize what still needs to happen.
A month after International Women’s Day, with its theme of Inspiring Change, the people of Afghanistan will head to the polls to elect a new president. As many of the presidential candidates campaign on the need to recognize the rights of women and make promises of bringing improvement to women’s lives, many Afghani women are hopeful that 2014 will be a year of positive change for both them and their country. They are calling for changes in attitudes and positive action for women’s equality; if Afghanistan is to make progress, the status quo cannot continue.
Mahdia tells me that she is doing all she can to encourage her daughters to get good educations so they can have opportunities that she has been denied. She also tells me — with that big smile lighting up her face — that they are so proud of her learning to read and write.
As I sit here in Afghanistan, I can’t help but wonder how my life may have turned out had it not been for the opportunities I have had, because I was born a female in New Zealand.