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04.03.2011 - Article
100th anniversary: International Women’s Day, 8 March 2011

“Afghanistan’s women don’t have confidence in themselves”

Afghanistan’s women continue to face many challenges since the fall of the Taliban in 2002. According to the United Nations, about 18% of Afghan women are literate. At birth, they have a life expectancy of 44 years. At tertiary level only 20% of students are women. Yet women occupy almost 28% of seats in national parliaments. On the occasion of the International Women’s Day we interview Afghanistan’s first female governor, Dr. Habiba Surabi, Governor of Bamyan.

Bamyan province lies in the central highlands of Afghanistan. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), through Helvetas, supports various agricultural and infrastructure projects in the province, including the new Sustainable Land Management Institute. The Swiss House of Science also provides support to the University of Bamyan.

A model province
Of the 120’000 children enrolled in schools in Bamyan, 43% are girls. One provincial, three district hospitals and more than 60 health facilities have been established in the past three years. Bamyan is a peaceful province and Dr Habiba Surabi wishes it would “become a model for other provinces so that they can also try to build up the economy and security of their provinces”. Habiba Surabi is the first and only female governor in Afghanistan.

Habiba SurabiInterview
Born in Ghazni province in 1958, Habiba Surabi completed her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy at Kabul University. She is mother to two sons and a daughter. Her husband is a businessman. Before she became Afghanistan’s first female governor in 2005, she served as Minister of Women’s Affairs.

Please briefly describe for us your path to becoming the only female governor in Afghanistan?
Before I was appointed the Governor of Bamyan I served as the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Cabinet of Ministers of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. I was about to be made an ambassador to represent Afghanistan abroad, but based on my request and the decision of President Hamid Karzai I was appointed as the first woman governor in the country.

What attracted you to politics?
During various periods of Afghanistan’s history, women have been tormented. Particularly during the black period of the Taliban regime, women were deprived of even their basic needs. These are some of the reasons why I entered politics.

What challenges do you face as the only female governor in Afghanistan? What was the reaction of your male counterparts to your appointment as a Governor?
There is no challenge that would prevent me from serving my country. But, several challenges do exist: the traditional society, the “rule of men”, and certain social behaviours that have emerged since the war. The “rule of men”, their dominance in society, could also be considered a strength at times. I was fortunate that I was welcomed by many governors. They respected my appointment as governor. At the same time, I cannot deny that a few governors resented my appointment and were envious.

In Europe we mostly read and hear about the oppression of women in Afghanistan and their struggle to become equal members of society. How would you describe the reality of women in Afghanistan today? What role do they play today?From my point of view, the unfortunate reality of women in Afghanistan today is that they don’t have confidence in themselves anymore. There are various reasons for this lack of confidence: the high illiteracy rate among women and, as I mentioned earlier, the suffering they have experienced throughout our history. They don’t believe that they have the same rights as men. They are made to believe that they are the second-class gender. Women in Afghanistan cannot show their talents, what they are capable of. If they do, they are always faced with abuse and humiliation. Women can do a good job in politics and in civil society. They can advocate for their rights.

On this International Women’s Day, what is your wish for Afghanistan’s girls and women?
I wish that the women and girls in Afghanistan live in peace and security, have unhindered access to education and health services, and are not faced with any kind of abuse.

More information on women in Afghanistan

Shafiqa Quraishi Interview with General Shafiqa Quarishi, a director in Afghanistan’s Ministry of the Interior, speaks about a programme to recruit and train policewomen which is partly funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

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