Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Maintaining Commitment to Afghan Women and Girls

by Simin Wahdat 

I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1983. In 1994, at the height of the war, my father decided to move our family to Pakistan because of the escalating danger for girls. In my family, there are five girls and two boys, and my father wanted to protect the girls from the Mujahedeen and the Taliban who were kidnapping, raping, and trafficking young girls. Girls who went to school risked having their faces sprayed with acid.

Moving to Pakistan was not an easy decision for my family to make, but we felt we had no choice because of the extreme conditions in my country. While the status of women in Pakistan was not significantly better than Afghanistan, the practice of abuse against women was lower.

After being uprooted from Afghanistan, our finances were limited. That, combined with social restrictions meant that my older sister and I couldn’t attend formal school. Fortunately, my father started a home school for us while my older brother went outside to school. Even though my father was exhausted after coming home from a long day at work, he never delayed our daily lessons. My father taught us several subjects including English, in which he is fluent. I loved learning English and worked harder than my other siblings to speak in the language. I started communicating in English outside my home after only a couple of years. After my father found a better job, our financial condition improved, and my younger sisters and brothers had the opportunity to attend better schools.

But things for my older sister and I did not change much because we had to earn a living in order to support our family. I started to look for job when I was 15 years old. It was not common for Afghans to learn English, so I was one of the few Afghan girls who could speak the three required languages. I got the job, and started working with Afghan women in the refugee camps of Pakistan. I received training on women’s rights, gender equality and equity, and peace building, and then conducted those same trainings for women in refugee camps in Chaman, Pakistan.

My family decided to move back to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. After we returned, I remained committed to working to improve Afghan women’s lives. I traveled to provinces to educate Afghan women about elections and help make their voices heard.

Then, in 2007, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. While at Bucknell, I increased awareness about the status of Afghan women by giving public talks and publishing articles on the importance of women’s rights in Afghanistan. In 2011, I graduated with a degree in Women and Gender Studies and International Relations and returned to Afghanistan to continue working on electoral reform and civic advocacy programming in Afghanistan, with close attention to increasing women’s participation in the electoral process.

Currently, I work as a Legislative Fellow in the office of Congresswoman Betty McCollum (MN-4) where I focus on Afghan women’s political rights beyond 2014. Congresswoman McCollum was instrumental in publishing this month an Open Letter to the Women of Afghanistan from several members of the US Congress. The letter recognizes the enormous progress Afghan women have made in the areas of government, education, and health since the fall of the Taliban, and pledges continued support for policies and programs to benefit Afghan women and girls, especially as Afghanistan and the international community prepare for a new post-2014 era.

Simin and Congresswoman McCollum

“As you continue to fight for equal opportunity, equal participation, and equal protection under the law,” the letter states, “we are committed to standing with you. We firmly believe that expanding women and girls’ access to education, economic enrichment, and social mobility will benefit not only the individual girl, but her whole community.”

In this spirit, I will return to Afghanistan after I complete my master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Transformation in 2014. Armed with in-depth knowledge of peacebuilding practices, and with the continued support of the international community, I will continue to work for Afghan women and girls.

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