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Women Can Do Much Once They Realize Their Power

Fri, Sep 24, 2004

Press

Beirut meeting focuses on empowerment of females in region

The Daily Star / By Jessy Chahine / Newspaper clipping of the article (PDF)

BEIRUT: Once women come to realize that they can have a say and that working together brings power, countless ideas and civic organizations come about, said exiled former Iranian Minister Mahnaz Afkhami during an international meeting of non-governmental organizations to discuss the empowerment of women in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The meeting, which started last Saturday and ends Tuesday, gathered leaders of partner organizations from 12 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to discuss empowerment-of-women issues and was sponsored by the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) in collaboration with the Center for Research and Training on Development (CRTD).

“This meeting involved women activists, including directors and program coordinators from each of WLP’s partner organizations,” said Afkhami, founder and president of WLP, an international organization that conducts leadership training and organizational development programs for women in cooperation with partner organizations throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Afkhami has been a political exile from Iran for speaking out on behalf of women’s issues for over 25 years.

Participants discussed the challenges and opportunities they are facing as they strive to promote women’s rights nationally, regionally and internationally and fortify relationships to help build a stronger support structure and international network of civil society advocates.

“We are here in order to work together to create a development plan for the network for the next two years,” Afkhami said. “The focus of our work is leadership training for women and leadership training, which is not only concentrated on getting a higher number of women in decision-making positions but also bringing a new type of leadership to the social and political scene.”

Afkhami said if women work together, “we can encourage a kind of leadership that is participatory, respectful of diversity, cooperative … and is based on communication and interaction, not the traditional leadership styles which are hierarchical, authority based.”

Offering a new definition of “power”, Afkhami said that rather than being a power over others, it should be a power to do things for society.

“So we work with partner organizations in various countries to develop learning tools and manuals,” Afkhami said. “And these are concentrated on helping individual women to realize their own agency and the importance of their participation, the impact that they can have on their society and to really accept that they can make change.”

Women, Afkhami said, must realize that they do have the “potential power” even if hey do not have a “realized power.”

“The potential is there,” Afkhami said.

“They should try and make that potential realized and our learning material goes from this individual empowerment and enabling to capacity building in organizations for creation of strong civil society organizations,” said the exiled minister.

In the region, she said, “there is a discrepancy between the aspiration of women, who have gained a lot of skills and who have gained a lot of education and created organizations and between the political, legal and social status.”

That disparity between the two, she added, created a whole lot of tension and conflict on the family, community and social levels.”

We’re hoping that our work empowers women to begin to change their communities toward more egalitarian, just and healthier societies,” Afkhami said.

WLP’s ork, Afkhami said, was not in anyway confrontational with men, as women’s activism has sometimes been labeled in the West.

“It is working with others to change societies so we have created these learning tools and adapted them to the requirements of the various communities that are constituencies of our partners and we have them now in 12 languages with two versions of Arabic,” Afkhami said.

Such meetings, Afkhami said, are meant to exchange experiences and best practices and share what has worked in some countries and some other challenges women have had, and also to strengthen the women activists’ network in the region.

CRTD, a Beirut-based civil consultancy company, is active in servicing programs, initiatives and activities in the field of poverty and social development in Lebanon and the Arab region.

Odilia Kukah, one of the conference’s participants and also the coordinator of Community Education and Development Services (CEDS), a Cameroonian women’s NGO that implements empowerment and leadership development programs for women in Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon, said that for women back home, violence was the most “urgent” problem to handle.

“In my country there is a lot of violence against women,” Kukah said, adding: “We’re talking about all sorts of violence, be it physical or emotional. In our law nothing protects the women.”

Anna Pinto Laifungbam, representing the indigenous, or tribal, women in India, said that in India, women had a long way to go and that men had an even longer way to go.

“Our concerns and situations are very different from other Indian societies,” Laifungbam said. “We are a region of on-going conflict between different armed groups and the state, and among armed groups also. That’s one of our big problem areas.”

Indigenous populations, Laifungbam said, have been included in what is called India.

“We are a very small minority of the population size, so our participation iin what is called the democratic process doesn’t have the kind of impact that we feel it should,” Laifungbam said. “If the world was driven less by elitist policies where all the money and authorities are controlled by such small groups things would be different now.”

Indigenous populations are the most marginalized people of the Indian population, Laifungbam said. “We are the smallest minority and the kinds of aspirations we have are so different,” she said.

So it has been a deeply traumatic experience for us in many ways to be controlled by a government whose policies are so much in conflict with our values,” she added.

“For us,” Afkhami said, “the land is our mother. And here are things you don’t do to your mother.”

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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