I attend many public gatherings known as ‘shuras’ in Helmand. The one I was invited to address on Monday was however different in that it was for women and run by women. I came away feeling we had reached a really important milestone in the tough journey women face in Helmand.
The aim of this shura was to alert women in Helmand to the upcoming Municipal Advisory Board (MAB) election - to encourage them to vote and to consider standing for the four out of twenty four seats that are reserved for women.
Nearly 100 women attended the event. Contrast this with the same event held in 2011 where only a handful turned up. The increased interest suggests that women in Lashkar Gah want to make their voice heard on issues at the local level that really matter to them: cleaner streets, safer communities, more green spaces – and they want women to represent their specific interests.
I spent some time at the start of the event meeting a diverse range of women; we chatted about their priorities, primarily jobs and education. I spoke to two dynamic women who planned to stand as candidates. I was encouraged by the young girls I talked to – they had ambitious plans for their futures, one wanted to be a doctor, another a member of parliament.
This level of aspiration is testament to a generational change in this country – seeing their mothers registering to vote at the end of the shura will have demonstrated to these young girls that the women of Afghanistan can play an integral part in the country’s political process.
The shura was addressed by one of the two women on the Helmand Provincial Council – Razia Baluch. She spoke brilliantly comparing Helmand in 2013 where women now have the rights to vote, work and increased freedom of movement with Helmand ten years ago where women dared not leave the house.
She exhorted women to vote not only in the upcoming MAB election but in District and Provincial, Parliamentary and Presidential elections. Razia also called on those women present to consider standing for election, noting that membership of the MAB could be the first rung on a ladder that took them to Parliament.
She thanked the international community for their efforts in encouraging Afghan women to enter into public life.
I was then invited to speak. I praised Afghan women for their bravery and fortitude. Afghan policewomen are a noteworthy example – they continue to put their lives on the line every day – they’re an example to us all. I reminded those present that women in the UK haven’t always had the right to vote.
We have come a long way of course – I pointed to two women who run powerful Whitehall departments, Theresa May, Home Secretary and Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development as evidence. I concluded by emphasising the significance of Afghan women exercising their right to vote, of holding their political representatives to account and of using public office to transform Afghanistan’s future and Afghan people’s lives.
There are Afghan female doctors, female teachers and female engineers. We may be now about to see more Afghan women in politics. It takes huge courage for Afghan women to enter public life. The country remains deeply conservative but younger women are starting to rise to the challenge. Afghanistan’s future will be a better and safer place for their participation.
Sally Lockwood of BFBS produced a great report on this event. See her interview with me here.