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How can we amplify the voices of women around the world?

We must work with our colleagues to create and accelerate change in our own, and in their, communities

By Frances D'Souza  

Afghan refugee teacher Aqeela Asifi © AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

This article was produced in association with Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK

Earlier this year, a woman was beaten to death in Afghanistan as a result of a false allegation that she had burnt pages of the Qur’an.  In October, a video surfaced showing a woman being stoned to death for adultery after she had attempted to escape a forced marriage in Ghor Province. So brutal were these incidents that even Afghanistan, despite the pervasive violence against women, was shocked.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the treatment of women was just as bad. Political parties in some of the more conservative provinces struck a deal barring women from voting in local elections in May this year, and a court threw out a petition contesting the results. The leading Pakistani women’s rights activist, Sabeen Mahmud, was murdered in April, and numerous honour killings have chilled the world. The Storyville documentary India’s Daughter drew the international attention to endemic sexual violence and the trafficking of girls in India.

There is widespread recognition that women in South Asian societies struggle to achieve their basic rights, despite slow improvement in some areas such as maternal mortality. Indeed a 2011 global survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation identified Afghanistan as the worst country in which to be a woman with Pakistan and India coming third and fourth respectively.

Despite the savage challenges faced by women in the sub-continent, there is some progress. Examples include the work of DfID-funded Project Aitebaar in Pakistan, which works to improve women’s access to justice by making police stations more approachable, improving the visibility of policewomen and pioneering a victim support service. In Afghanistan, Marie Stopes International has made headway persuading imams to distribute condoms in defiance of Taliban bans, averting an estimated 1,646 unintended pregnancies in 2014. Last month, teacher Aqeela Asifi won the Nansen Refugee Award for her pioneering school for young, female Afghan refugees in Pakistan, a project that has now won Pakistani government funding. And earlier this year, an Afghan woman completed the first ever Afghan marathon, resolute in the face of stigma and ridicule.

These examples highlight the diversity of projects that help to empower women’s participation in all areas of life in South Asia. From civil society and non-governmental agencies to local government and the public sector, to the female micro- entrepreneurs creating jobs for women in sectors such as the textiles industry. Society is slowly coming round to the view that a failure to empower women will severely curtail its collective potential. Complementarity between these different entities is critical if they are to be effective – thus education should support the development of skills valued by employers, while community leaders should be given guidance on how to direct women towards appropriate healthcare provision.

There is a clear and critical role for parliamentarians. We can be advocates on a national and international stage, rallying support for the cause of women’s rights. We can also drive legislative agendas that create an enabling environment for initiatives from all sectors to support women’s security and empowerment. We can hold governments to account on protecting women in the exercise of these rights.

Over the last four years, I have worked with colleagues from across South Asia, in particular from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to seek solutions to the challenges facing women who participate in public life. We have had the opportunity to share ideas and best practice on championing women’s rights in our legislatures at a series of visits and programmes run by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK and the Parliament of Pakistan. Workshops have focused on issues ranging from women’s access to justice, economic participation, maternal health and education.

This week in Westminster, the fifth phase of this ongoing programme, we will explore ways in which we as parliamentarians can draw these strands together to establish a broader community of action, including non-traditional actors such as civil society, the media, and the private sector, to support the promotion of women’s rights.  We will be able to better understand opportunities for cooperation in meetings with representatives of different areas across the private, public and third sectors, and with parliamentarians from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives.

In a speech to mark International Women’s Day speech last year, the EU Ambassador to Afghanistan, Franz-Michael Mellbin, suggested that “What we are lacking is a strong official voice to counter those reactionary voices … this makes it very difficult to fight for progress.” It is imperative that the international community, including our parliaments, seeks out and helps to amplify that voice, and that we work with our colleagues to create and accelerate change in our own, and in their, communities.

Baroness D’Souza is the Lord Speaker for the House of Lords, and has written this piece as part of her work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK (CPA UK). CPA UK undertakes international parliamentary outreach through parliamentary strengthening and parliamentary diplomacy activities involving MPs and peers from the UK Parliament. By bringing this wealth of expertise and experience together with academia, civil society and the private sector CPA UK facilitates dialogue on a range of subjects relating to democracy, development and the Westminster model of parliamentary practice and procedure.

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