Mahnaz Afkhami’s Remarkable Contribution to Women’s Progress

Fri, Nov 3, 2006


Iran Dokht / By Pari Esfandiari

Guest: Mahnaz Afkhami

Guest: Mahnaz Afkhami

Mahnaz Afkhami’s remarkable contribution to women’s progress

This interview is intended for our website viewers and was not conducted for television.

In a recent trip to Washington DC, I received an invitation to join Women for Learning Partnership (WLP)’s partners in their annual meeting. It was a unique experience to spend a week with 19 female leaders from South and North whose energy, enthusiasm and drive was simply amazing. They came to learn and to teach, to listen and to speak, to give and to receive and most importantly to share their experience and support one another’s diverse efforts in improving women’s lives. The following is a conversation with Mahnaz Afkhami – the founding president of WLP.

Pari: This gathering was very unique; would you explain what WLP is aiming to achieve?
We want to advance communication and cooperation between women in the Global South, particularly in Middle East/North Africa, in order to protect human rights, facilitate sustainable development, and promote peace. WLP is an innovator, resource, and convener dedicated to advancing women’s leadership, strengthening the women’s movement with resources and knowledge created in the Global South, and transforming power relations.

Pari: How did the idea for WLP come about?
WLP was founded in 2000 in response to the expressed needs of a network of NGO leaders and grassroots activists in the Middle East-North Africa region in the aftermath of the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference for Women. The idea was that raising the level of confidence of women and helping them develop leadership skills is the best way to ensure their full participation in decision making. We developed a concept of leadership that is interactive, participatory, and inclusive – the opposite of the historic patriarchal, hierarchical, and aggressively competitive leadership models in effect from the level of the family to that of the political and corporate world. Our leadership concept is based on a shared vision of the kind of world we want to build for our own and our children’s future.

Pari: How does WLP carry out its work?
We create culture-specific skills building and leadership training curriculum in close cooperation with our partner organizations. We conduct training of trainers institutes that bring together representatives from various civic organizations in each country. The partner organizations will each carry out training workshops with a variety of groups in their country. We facilitate interaction between our partner organizations so that they can exchange best practices and effective strategies.

Pari: What exactly do you mean with partnership, how are they related to WLP?
Women’s Learning Partnership is comprised of WLP International in the USA and 18 WLP national and regional partners. While each partner organization is autonomous and independent with their own board, staff, and structure, we share the values and aspirations of the Partnership as a whole. WLP International and partners work together on three areas. They develop culture specific training curriculum. They organize training of trainers institutes at the national and regional levels to help build the skills and capacities of individuals and organizations. And they carry out campaigns for legislative change and for issue specific advocacy.

IranDokht_MAfkhamiRemarkableContribution_2Pari: Who are these partners?
Our partners are based in Afghanistan, Brazil, Cameroon, Egypt, India, Iran, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palestine, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. Some of our partners act as regional coordinators, among them BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria who represents the partnership in Africa, and SIGI Jordan that coordinates the Young Women’s Learning Partnership initiative or YWLP.

Pari: How does WLP selects its partners?
Partners have joined in a variety of ways. Some have been suggested by existing partners or board members. Some have contacted us directly. Some have been identified once their members have taken part in our regional institutes. In all cases we work together on a trial basis to ascertain that we share the same vision, values, and priorities, and that we agree on concepts and methodology. We make certain that the organization has a strong national base and is respected in its own community. We then proceed to design a partnership structure that is agreeable to all of us.

Pari: What services does WLP provide for her partners?
WLP International provides the space for generation of ideas and co-produces the content and framework for WLP programs and curriculum with partners. WLP partners act as national or regional hubs through which jointly developed knowledge and tools are tested, adapted, and disseminated through workshops, eCourses, training of trainers institutes, and other programs. WLP International leverages resources for partners in two ways.
First, we make baseline funding available to national and regional partners to implement programs, and assist in monitoring and reporting. We provide for technology, such as setting up computer centers and training them on the use of technology for advocacy. We also provide forums for our partners from the developing world to communicate their needs and priorities to the developed world where power, resources, and media outlets are concentrated. We meet with our entire partnership at least once a year for a week long exchange and brainstorming session.
Second, we help build partners’ fundraising capacity, by establishing connections, providing information on potential funders, and creating platforms that help raise the visibility of partners’ work. We build on partners’ existing organizational infrastructure to multiply our joint capabilities.

Pari: Where do you receive funding for WLP?
WLP’s work is made possible through support from individual donors as well as a variety of Foundations, among them: Canadian International Development Agency, Ford Foundation, The Global Fund for Women, Levi Strauss Foundation, Libra Foundation, Open Society Institute, Oxfam Novib, Shaler Adams Foundation, The United Methodist Church, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Pari: How WLP has been received at home and abroad?
The work of WLP is non-partisan and the partnership does not align itself with any particular political party or group. Our work is known for its impact on women’s empowerment. We have not had any limitations put on our work specifically. But in certain countries where governments have attempted to limit the work of civic society, inevitably, our partners have also been affected.

Pari: What challenges have you faced?
Our greatest problems are the growth of extremism and fundamentalism which always effects women’s activism and authoritarian governments who are now both more threatened by current political conditions and also more prone to use these conditions as a reason for tightening their hold on civic activism and advocacy. For example, in 2005, activities in Uzbekistan ground to a halt due to a government crackdown on NGOs and communication with partners in Iran became increasingly difficult in the climate of fear that developed with Ahmadinejad’s rise to power. Another impediment is change in the funding environment, especially decrease in funding for women’s rights activism. WLP partners live in societies where a culture of philanthropy does not exist. Most local donations go to charity or to religious institutions. Support for human rights and women’s rights organizations must come from international grant giving institutions. These institutions want to make sure their funds do not pass on to extremist groups. Recent cataclysmic events such as natural disasters, wars and conflicts have caused a shift in areas of focus to relief and reconstruction work. In addition, some 20 countries have enacted legislation that limits funding from international sources for their national civil society organizations. These are conditions that can be detrimental to our work, but fortunately, we work with a dynamic group of women leaders who focus on the evolving conditions and, being a “learning organization,” that is, an organization that is flexible and responsive to the environment, we are able to find alternative strategies, and innovative solutions to the problems we face.

Pari: In short period of time WLP has achieved tremendous success, what is the most lasting impact on women’s discourse.
Our greatest achievement is the nature of our partnership itself. The unprecedented close and ongoing communication and exchange between partner organizations in four regions of the world—communication and exchange that is based on mutual respect and reciprocity creates possibilities for knowledge exchange, for mutual support, for south/south as well as north/south dialogue which creates a synergy and dynamism that is extraordinarily effective. Through this relationship we have been able to produce curriculum in seventeen languages, each well suited to the specific cultural context of the intended community. We have developed a methodology that is inclusive, consensus based, and interactive rather than the hierarchical, competitive model now in practice in business and politics. Through implementation of thousands of workshops, we have cultivated the leadership skills of grassroots women in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to enable them to successfully negotiate at the family, community, as well as the national levels for conditions that are more favorable to their personal and social growth. Our technology workshops have taught them the skills necessary to access information about their rights and engage in dialogue with women around the world.

Pari: Mahnaz, under your leadership WLP has reached exceptional heights, what future holds for WLP and what are your own future plans?
The partnership is expanding steadily, growing into a movement of women from diverse backgrounds and circumstances who have a shared vision and strategies developed by consensus and designed to meet the felt needs of grassroots women. We will be creating curriculum for training young women leaders through the new YWLP initiative. We will be developing new curriculum on political participation and on elimination of violence against women. We will be adapting the new training material into all the languages of the partners.
As for me personally, having had the privilege of working for several years with Rakhee Goyal, a young woman of exceptional leadership abilities who leads and a team of committed and capable women, I have asked her to take on the management duties at WLP international. This will free some of my time to complete a memoir I have been working on for a while now. In my life I have been lucky to have had an exceptional opportunity to work in academia as chair of the English department at the National University of Iran, as a delegate to the United Nations general assembly, as secretary general of the Women’s Organization of Iran, and as the first Minister for Women’s Affairs of Iran, as well as founder of two international women’s organizations. My path has crossed that of many extraordinary women in Iran, in the Middle East region, as well as around the world. I hope to be sharing the experience of being part of the women’s movement at the local and global level for over thirty years and reflect upon the way women learn from each other and work together and the challenges and opportunities they face in the troubled times in which we live.

Pari: I am eager to read your inspirational memoir. I wish you and WLP all the best and thank you for all you have done to support Iranian women and women around the globe.

For more information related to these questions, please visit WLP’s website at:
Partnerships – http://www.learningpartnership.org/partners
Leadership Training Curriculum – http://www.learningpartnership.org/publications/training
Programs –
Leadership and Empowerment – http://www.learningpartnership.org/programs/leadership
Organizational and Capacity Building Program – http://www.learningpartnership.org/programs/orgcapacity
ICT Capacity Building Program – http://www.learningpartnership.org/programs/ICT
Women’s Human Rights Program – http://www.learningpartnership.org/programs/humanrights
Culture of Peace Program – http://www.learningpartnership.org/programs/peace

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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

Kudos to @RepRoKhanna & @RepMattGaetz on their bipartisanship efforts in passing the Khanna-Gaetz amendment in the #House. We're a step closer to preventing another unnecessary/costly war in the #ME. Congrats to @PAAIA & other allied #Iranian-#American orgs for their #advocacy.

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Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom
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