Educating Afghan Women: DoWA director bests threats, promotes women’s rights in Helmand
Regional Command Southwest Story by Sgt. Lia Adkins LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan - In the early 1900s, King Amanullah encouraged Afghan women to be more westernized, shed their face-covering garments, get educated and work. But after Islamic fundamentalists came to power in the late 20th century, the Taliban fully denied women’s rights to participate in social, economic, cultural and political life.
Since U.S. military forces toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, women have fought to learn skills to
sustain their families. Some have lost their lives during the struggle, including 100 girls who were killed in a grenade attack during their first day of school. However, there are still women who are standing up against the oppression and working to build a better future for women in Afghanistan.
Jamilia Niazi has dedicated her life to improving women’s roles in Helmand province. She is the Department of Women’s Affairs director in Helmand province, Afghanistan, and a member of the High Peace Council in Kabul.
Niazi is responsible for overseeing policy for the women in Helmand and enforcing the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan, as well as any Ministry of Women’s Affairs policy.
MoWA is responsible for implementing political and social policy to secure and expand women’s legal rights,while NAPWA is the “main vehicle of government” for implementing its gender commitments in national and international policy instruments on women, according to the MoWA website.
Niazi was appointed as the DoWA director in 2012 and has devoted herself to running programs which educate women to help them gain employment. She runs vocational programs to teach women skills such as tailoring, embroidery and curtain making so women can financially support themselves and their families, said Sgt. Sarah Abdella, the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program outreach liaison officer with Regional Command (Southwest).
Niazi spends most of her days at the DoWA office in Lashkar Gah, writing new proposals for programs and supervising classes. Her sun-lit office is decorated in embroidered, pale green curtains she regularly boasts were sewn by the women attending the vocational classes.
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But the office has no electricity, lights, or running water, so Niazi resorts to hand writing all her proposals. Niazi recently partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mercy Corps and the U.S. and Afghan governments for funding and resources. She has been able to collect more than 20 sewing machines for women attending the vocational program.
“We had 70 to 80 women from poor families work with us and we made more than 160 uniforms for girls going to school,” said Niazi. “More than 150 women have benefited from the classes and
have earned an income.”
Women from 13 to more than 40 years old regularly attend the DoWA vocational sewing classes.
Niazi also holds peace shuras, and regularly makes herself available to any woman’s issues.
Working together, Niazi and Abdella have been very successful in Helmand province though it has not been without exertions. As recently as May, Niazi had to go into hiding after her driver was killed while on his way to morning prayers.
“Jamila (Niazi) has never been afraid to go against the grain, working at the only open girls’ school in Helmand during the Taliban regime,” said Abdella, a Rensselaerville, N.Y., native. Niazi is a certified
teacher and taught regularly before eventually working as the principle for the girls’ school in Lashkar Gah for eight years.
“I had a lot of challenges,” said Niazi. “The main problem was locals did not want the women to come to school because foreign officials would visit and tour the school, and it did not sit well with the locals. So I told them not to come while the women were at school. I received a lot of warnings from the Taliban because of it.”
Abdella said Niazi has faced death threats since the time she was principal of the Lashkar Gah girls’ school and continues to regularly receive threats to her life and that of her family.
But Niazi has not let threats deter her. The mother of seven is described as a kind, caring and determined woman.
“I have personally seen her stand up for other women in ways that one would not expect of a stereotypical Afghan woman,” said Abdella. “During one of our shuras, a young teenage girl approached Jamila with a problem. Her parents had been killed, and the uncle she was now living with would not let her continue her education. Jamila asked for his phone number and called him on the spot to demand that he allow his niece to return to school and provide her with his support.”
Niazi said she is committed to expanding education and employment for women in Helmand province, as well as developing the female aspect of the peace program.
“I continue to do this kind of work because I am committed to the future of my country,” said Niazi. “I want to see women and girls have the opportunity to become educated and contribute to