Afghanistan

UNDP Afghanistan Newsletter 15 Jan 2006

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Fawzia Koofi: Trailblazer
SEAL: Life as a single mother in Afghanistan is not easy but for Fawzia Koofi, it's only one of the many experiences in her life that have given her the strength and determination to become an MP.

"My husband passed away, that's why I am alone. My father was killed during the first years of the revolution. I learned a lot during my personal life, which is why I became very strong," says Faw-zia from her shiny new office in the Secretariat. "I was a victim of the war and I learned a lot from my personal life. I am alone -- being a young woman alone in Afghanistan is not easy, and being an MP and Second Deputy Chairwoman of parliament is hard, but I want to demonstrate to the world and to Afghanistan that women have the capacity to do the job."

If anyone is in doubt about the progress in gender equity in Afghanistan, they need only to speak to Fawzia to realize that anything is possible and that progress is indeed being made.

At 30 years old, not only is Faw-zia an MP, but she was also recently voted as Second Deputy Chairwoman of the Wolesi Jirga. This is a momentous achievement for a woman from Badak-shan who was previously a Child Protection Officer with UNICEF. Fawzia describes the decision to leave her job and run for parliament as an 'accident'. "It all happened all of a sudden... you don't expect these things in Afghanistan," she laughs, quite bemused at how far she has come in such a short time.

UNDP has been supporting the establishment of parliament through its SEAL project; from building the secretariat, supplying equipment for the National Assembly, and installing IT systems, to training civil servants and new members of parliament. Fawzia participated in many of SEAL's activities but most notably, was also selected to attend the Regional Leadership Course for Young Leaders in Governance, held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in late November. Fawzia says the course certainly helped empower her and increase her capacity to lead, which in turn helped her be voted as the Second Deputy Chairwoman. One of the most significant achievements of the leadership training course was sharing experiences with other young women from developing countries. "Often you learn from other participants. We had other leaders from other underdeveloped post-conflict countries as well as democratic countries, so we learnt from their experiences," she says. The Afghan experience, however, is so unique that Fawzia felt she was breaking new ground. "We have such young women MPS in Afghanistan. In other countries it's the older women. The average woman in our parliament is between 25-35."

It was conspicuously noticeable on December 19th at the inauguration of parliament, that the majority of women in parliament were incredibly young; a phenomena that represents the social shift in Afghan society. "I think it's because [young women] were the victims. They were prevented from education and they lost their freedom and now that they have the opportunity to express themselves and they feel that being a victim they are now strong," says Fawzia. "The younger generation are the ones who want change. Secondly, during the war they had the opportunity to go out of the country to get skills -- they have good education from Pakistan and Iran and they have skills."

In her new position, Fawzia emphasizes that whilst women and gender are on her agenda, they are not the highest priority. Faw-zia is focused on the big picture which means addressing the circumstances that cause inequality such as lack of employment, education, policy or culture. "Although it is a concern and a challenge to bring equity to women, it has to go together with men's development," she says. "There has to be a balance."

"Women are on my agenda, but I don't wan to run too fast and only talk about women and gender. What issues are preventing gender equity? Is it the law? Is it culture? What is it that stops bringing women forward? If it's educating men or getting men employed so they stop being violent at home then let's do that. If you want to have a healthy father that can support the family and take care of the family then you need to have a service delivery that will support that father."

Fawzia comes across as a woman of immense strength who possesses a gritted determination to help her country regardless of the personal cost. She says that days of working at UNICEF and being comfortable behind a computer, are over. She now must host innumerable guests on a regular basis from her small apartment, whilst trying to raise her children alone. "I don't have a normal life like before," she says. Midnight knocks on the door are frequent, but when she answers, no one is there. But, forever an optimist, Fawzia believes that any attack or intimidation towards her is an attack on democracy and the new political system, not her personally.

Politics is new for Fawzia, who entered the foray with high ideals on what she could achieve and how she could change things. "Politics for me is a game," she laughs. "I am very new in politics, and coming into parliament I really didn't think about being a politician, I just wanted to help achieve things." Learning the ropes of parliament requires a lot more cunning than she expected, in addition to the intellectual challenges of policy reform. Despite the challenges however, Fawzia insists that she just wants to be an agent of change, along with the many other women who are making strides in their field of work throughout the country.

However, those strides are precariously fragile and Fawzia is very mindful of nursing democracy like a baby; encouraging it to grow through care and attention. "With the current situation I am very hopeful for the conditions for women in Afghanistan. Because of the enthusiasm, they all want to be agents of change, not just for themselves but for their whole communities, so I have lots of hope for the future," says Fawzia. "But if the international community says 'you have a parliament now' and then leaves, then we will return to instability. Democracy is a baby and we need to pamper it and help it grow. If democracy dies, things will be even worse for women than they were before."

In reference to where she sees herself in 20 years and whether being president is on the cards, Fawzia demonstrates that she is already adept at the craftiness of political rhetoric. "Let's see..." she says. "This is a game".

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