Journalists belonging to the Afghan Women Journalists’ Association urged UNESCO to play a leading role in supporting Afghanistan’s transformation after 2014, the date when most peacekeeping forces are expected to withdraw and national elections are to be organized.
On 17 May, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova met in Kabul with the Association, founded in 2005 by Ms Shafiqa Habibi and now counting 350 members in five provinces.
“Our greatest challenge is the lack of capacity – many journalists have no professional training. In some provinces there are no women journalists,” said Ms Habibi, whose Association conducts training workshops for women journalists across the country.
“We are also afraid that women won’t participate in the elections. This is why we are now developing projects to run workshops for all women journalists, to encourage them to cover the issues.”
According to Ms Sharifa Zurmati, a journalist who became one of 68 Afghan women to win a seat in the country’s Wolesi Jirga, the Lower House of Parliament, there are 2400 women journalists working across the country. “We have been able to bring tremendous changes in the last decade, we have made great gains in freedom of expression and we don’t want to lose these gains,” said Ms Zurmati. “We hope that UNESCO will play a lead role in putting pressure on the world community to keep supporting Afghanistan and Afghan women after 2014.”
Women face tremendous challenges in breaking through conservative traditions: at least 300 have been forced to leave their jobs in recent years during to insecurity, says Ms Zurmati. Ms Sohayla Waziri, a student in her third year of journalism studies at Kabul University, said that the first challenge is to break down barriers about women’s role. “Society tells us that this is not a good job for a girl, that only men can do it, that our religion is against it. But we know how honorable this profession is. We are messengers for innocent women who are under the pressure of different ideologies. And after 2014, once I have completed university, will I have the opportunity to work or now?” Ms Nargis Waziri, a student in her fourth year of television journalism, recalls that at the beginning, simply being heard was difficult. “I always knew that I wanted to form my own ideas and express them, and now my fellow students and teachers respect me.”
The Director-General commended the women for their courage, assuring them of UNESCO’s solid intention to accompany their country and profession. She referred to UNESCO’s expertise in journalism training in transition settings and election-related overage. “We are looking to expand our support in the run up to 2014 and beyond,” said Ms Bokova, insisting also on the importance of gender-sensitive reporting. “How journalists speak about different aspects of women in society, whether in terms of language, politics, family, education, rights, health – all this contributes to slowly changing mentalities, and to showing that an educated woman has benefits for the entire family and society.” She pledged to seek support for training workshops to build up the capacity of journalists to report on elections.