World Movement for Democracy / By Rachel Boyle
Interview with Mahnaz Afkhami, President of the international non-governmental organization, Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace, and member of the World Movement’s Steering Committee
The following interview was conducted at the office of the Women’s Learning Partnership. The interview was conducted by Rachel Boyle, Project Assistant for the World Movement for Democracy.
Q: How was the Women’s Learning Partnership formed, what was your role in its establishment, and what is the organization’s overall mission?
After my five-year term as president of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute was completed, members of our network around the world, and especially those in the Middle East/ North Africa region, urged me to continue the work we had carried out for many years concentrating on leadership training for women to help expand both the number of women in decision-making positions and to bring a new approach to leadership that would encourage pluralism, democratic activism, respect for diversity, and conflict prevention and conflict resolution skills. Working with a group of women leaders from around the globe, I founded the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace.
Q: Can you name some of the WLP’s accomplishments? Plans for future work? What are the current projects of the organization?
Our greatest achievement has been the creation of an innovative leadership learning program that is developed in collaboration with our partners in the global south. The model on which the program is founded is dialogue-based, participatory, horizontal, and relies on development of shared vision, building of consensus, and acceptance and appreciation of diversity. We began this program with three partner organizations and it has now expanded to include partners in ten countries. The curriculum published in the handbook Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women has been adapted and translated from English into Arabic, French, Hausa, Persian, Russian, and Uzbek. We are also actively involved in building our partner organizations’ capacity to use modern technology. Last month, we organized our first Roaming Institute for Women’s Leadership, which brought together seventeen women leaders from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to hone their skills in NGO management, leadership training, development of communication strategies, and planning for media and advocacy campaigns. Our work in the area of peace and conflict resolution has resulted in the publication of an anthology of essays, entitled Toward a Compassionate Society, by a diverse group of scholars and practitioners. We continue our work to establish and extend global dialogue through web-based radio broadcasts of conversations between women leaders from various regions of the world on current topics of interest.
Q: In your opinion, what are some examples of the common challenges to equal participation that women currently face around the world?
Women across the world are hampered by traditional views that their role should be limited to their activities in the private sphere, and as a complement to the public role designated for men. Unfortunately, culture, religion, and history are all used to reinforce this arrangement. As a result, many women not only do not see themselves as people who can potentially impact their own lives and the lives of their community and society, but they lack equal access to education. The majority of the nearly one billion illiterate people in the world are women. They do not have access to credit and they are hampered by unequal inheritance laws, and although they work on the average 36 hours more per week than men, they are paid less, if at all. As a result, by far the majority of the 2 billion people who live in utter poverty on less than one dollar a day are women. The challenge, therefore, is to create awareness of the detrimental effect of this division of roles and responsibilities on society as a whole. It is necessary to enhance people’s consciousness that women’s participation is not a luxury that will be achieved after a certain level of development is reached, but that women’s full participation is the pre-requisite to democratic participation and sustainable development. However, changing attitudes through raising consciousness is perhaps the hardest thing to do. . .
Q: What are the most effective strategies for overcoming these challenges and for achieving equal political participation and representation?
The most effective strategies are those that focus on mobilizing women by helping them realize that they have the power as well as the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives. These strategies can be expedited and enhanced by the use of the new communication technologies that can connect people across the world easily and almost without cost. If we accept that knowledge is power in the 21st century, then creation and communication of knowledge is the main vehicle for empowering people. Building women’s capacity to engage in this exchange, and providing both the technology tools as well as the content, is the best strategy to reach the goal of full participation
Q: Recently, there has been some attention specifically to cultural or religious constraints on women’s integration into political decision-making and leadership positions. How would you describe this, and are there specific strategies for overcoming those constraints?
Religions and cultures are vital resources for people across the world. These great resources can be used and have been used for great good throughout history. But some have also used them to limit, hold back, or even hurt others who do not see things exactly as they do. The Muslim world has recently had a disproportionate share of the devastating effects of the use of religious extremism to gain political power and this has set back the cause of peace and democracy. But the use of religion as political ideology is not limited to any one faith. In our work we emphasize the right of women as well as men to interpret and define their faith. We talk about the importance of giving everyone the chance to review her own culture and to adapt it to the requirement of life in our time. Cultures are dynamic and evolving. They are not rigid and unchanging and we are not fixed within them as “insects in amber.” Rather, we can help keep the best in them and participate in the process of actively shaping them in ways that will nurture the good and diminish the negative.
Q: How can the international community help women’s organizations to empower women, promote leadership skills, and integrate women into political decision-making positions?
The international community can lend support-both moral and material-to the global struggle for rights and democracy, especially to the more disadvantaged groups, such as women. They can provide technical “know how”. They should help make possible inclusion of the global south in the international dialogue in order to allow for mutual understanding and learning. They should help empower intermediaries that can then empower the grassroots movements in the global south. They can show solidarity and assist with strengthening of networks both south/south and south/north.
Thank you very much, and best of luck to you and the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace.
World Movement for Democracy / By Rachel Boyle