Visit to London of the Minister for Women’s Affairs of Afghanistan

Date: December 2010
Team: Ann Pettifor, Georgia Lee
Areas of expertise: Advocacy, Policy

Advocacy International was honoured to organise the December 2010 visit to London of the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Afghan Government, Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar. Dr Ghazanfar was joined by her team made up of Ms Habibi Director, MOWA, Mr Zabi, translator, and Mrs Sharmistha Barwa of UNDP.

Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar and her team were keen to raise the profile in the UK of the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA), its objectives and work. This was achieved by briefing the media, British Government Ministers and Shadow Cabinet members, think-tanks and NGOs on the work of priorities of MOWA.

Dr Ghazanfar was able to outline the achievements of her Ministry for Women’s Affairs in Kabul. Dr. Ghazanfar is proud of the 37% increase in girls attending school since her Ministry was formed in 2001, and of the 25% ratio of women in the Afghan Parliament – higher than in Britain, where women make up 22% of the UK Parliament.

Finally, the Hon. Minister was keen to discuss the challenges and concerns faced by MOWA with influential decision makers and opinion-formers in London.

Baroness Sayeeda WarsiThe Rt Hon Baroness Warsi, Conservative Party’s co-chairman and minister without portfolio

Meeting with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Baroness Sandip VermaDr Ghazanfar meets with Baroness Sandip Verma, Government Whip and Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, the Department of International Development and Equalities and Women’s Issues.

To ensure that the Hon. Minister was given the fullest opportunity to present the work and goals of MOWA, the Ai team arranged meetings with the Rt. Hon Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party’s co-chairman and minister without portfolio. Baroness Warsi is the first Muslim woman to serve in a British Cabinet.

A meeting was also arranged with Baroness Sandip Verma, a member of the House of Lords, and currently a Government Whip and Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, the Department of International Development and Equalities and Women’s Issues.

Ai also arranged meetings with Opposition Ministers with similar responsibilities; Parliamentary and committee members; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO); the media (the BBC; the Financial Times and The Guardian); a think-tank (Chatham House); universities in both London and Oxford; and the Executive Director of an NGO in Oxford (OXFAM).

Therefore, during the short visit, the Hon. Minister and her delegation were given the opportunity to brief a broad spectrum of British governmental, parliamentary and media decision-makers and opinion-formers.

The team also arranged for the media and think-tanks to be briefed on the work of Islamic women in Afghanistan, working on a non-governmental basis. These were represented by Mrs Daisy Khan, Director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) and of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). Mrs Khan attended some meetings during the first two days of the Minister’s visit to London, and provided a briefing to journalists and others on the work undertaken by WISE members in Kabul.

During briefings to think-tanks, journalists and NGOs Dr Ghazanfar was able to outline the achievements of MOWA over the last 9 years. These included:

  • The preparation of the National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA) launched at the London Conference in January 2010 and followed up at the Kabul Conference in July, 2010.
  • Gender mainstreaming – $3 Million earmarked for gender mainstreaming over 3 years.
  • The education of girls and young women has risen from almost 0% to 37% since the Ministry was established in 2001 . Young women now make up 18% of university students.
  • Women in Afghanistan now make up 5% of security organisation employees. MOWA aims to raise this proportion to 30% within the next 8 years.
  • There are now 3 female Ministers in the Afghan Cabinet – an achievement in itself.
  • MOWA have been working (with UNDP) to develop a databank on Violence Against Women (VAW) with the aim of collecting reliable evidence on VAW so that they will be better placed to take strategic action to prevent widespread atrocities against women.

All of these developments were recognised as important steps. However, it was noted that all these positive developments need first, to be protected:

“work on women’s rights must not move backwards”

and second, built upon. Capacity-building for women politicians at all levels of the political process was mentioned as particularly important.

During the higher-level political meeting with Baroness Warsi there was dialogue around the need for peace negotiations to be undertaken on the basis of the Afghan Constitution. Baroness Warsi shared the UK government’s own draft action plan on Afghanistan and asked for feedback from MOWA and UNDP.

Homa Khaleeli of the Guardian drew on Minister Ghazanfar’s statements in her comprehensive article ‘Afghan women fear for the future’ published on Friday 4th February.


Khaleeli raised the point that although Afghan women’s rights were a prominent part of the rhetoric of the invasion of Afghanistan, today “the treatment of women under the Taliban is increasingly being dismissed as part of local culture”. She went on:

“Deniz Kandiyoti of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ gender studies department disputes these claims that the culture is to blame. “These people have been tossed to the wind and displaced, the old society has been eroded. Girls being given away to pay for opium debts, that’s hardly traditional. Now it is the people with the guns, the money, and the drugs runners who have power,” she says.

Today, according to Zainab Salbi, who has testified before the US senate, there is little appetite among US politicians for protecting women in the region, despite support from the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Instead, she says:

“There is a clear, clear opinion that women’s rights were a) not that relevant and b) irreconcilable with peace in Afghanistan.”

mowa-thumb2Government girls school in Banyam. The education of girls and young women has risen from almost 0% to 37% since MOWA was established in 2001. Photograph: Canada in Afghanistan

Khaleeli goes on:

“Few would argue that improvements have been made in women’s rights in the last decade. On a recent visit to the UK, Hussan Ghazanfar, Afghanistan’s minister for women’s affairs, outlined the progress made: 57% of women and girls now go to school, and 24% of health sector workers and 10% of the judiciary are female.

Yet activists say improvements are patchy and far from ideal – with healthcare, social care and freedom unavailable to many poverty-stricken rural women, many already living in Taliban-controlled areas. Even Ghazanfar admits: “Life is different in the countryside – the literacy level is different, traditional customs are stronger, and women have no financial or economic freedom there.”

Hamidi says most women she speaks to “are tired of war and killing”, and fearful of the future. “If the situation goes bad again the women here have nowhere to go.”

Dr Ghazanfar’s visit resulted in the voice of MOWA being heard in the British media, but also amongst high-level opinion formers and decision makers.

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