“I can’t stay quiet and watch”

UN Development Programme
10 min readOct 21, 2021

In their own words: Afghan women activists share their challenges living through conflict and their hopes for the future.

The crisis in Afghanistan threatens roll back development progress. Women and girls could lose access to education, jobs and other opportunities. Photo: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

The crisis in Afghanistan threatens to erase two decades of development progress. In addition to the immediate security concerns, there is an imminent threat of total economic collapse. A recent UNDP assessment found that 97 percent of the population could be living below the poverty line by the middle of 2022.

Women and girls face a special set of challenges. After years of advances, they stand to lose access to education, jobs and other opportunities and freedoms. In times of conflict, women are often overlooked, pushed aside or worse. Yet they hold the key to building stable and prosperous societies.

To mark the Open Debate of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, Afghan women’s rights defenders are giving voice to the challenges women and girls face in conflict situations and their hopes for the future.

Freshta Karimi (left) is a prominent lawyer and defender of women’s and children’s rights in Afghanistan. Asila Wardak (right) is a women’s rights and human rights activist and a former diplomat. Photos: Provided by Freshta Karimi and Asila Wardak

Freshta Karimi is a lawyer fighting for women and children’s rights and access to justice for everyone. She is founder and director of Da Qanoon Ghushtonky (“Seeker of Law” in Pashto), one of the largest legal aid organizations in Afghanistan.

Asila Wardak is a women’s rights and human rights activist and a former diplomat. She served for four years as Minister Counselor at the Afghanistan Mission to the United Nations.

By sharing their experiences, they aim to bolster women and men in similar situations who are striving to sustain gains in human rights, sustainable peace and development.

What are the greatest challenges you and other women are facing on a daily basis living in conflict? How do these challenges affect you?

Freshta: I was fortunate to leave the country because my children and husband are safe, but I’m still feeling very unfortunate for the rest of my family, friends, colleagues, women, children and all the people of my country. Whatever challenges they are facing right now in Afghanistan, I feel it with my mind and heart how hard life is for everyone, especially for women and girls. Women who were the only ones making income for the family are now at home with no job and no income. The justice system is completely inactive. For women with cases of violence, their voice has been shut down and they have no place to go.

What things have fundamentally changed for you since the Taliban took over? How is your life different today?

Asila: I’m a single woman and was living alone in Kabul. First, they stopped all women going to offices, and for me after all these years of experience and studies, being asked to sit at home made me sick and disappointed. Especially after 25 years of experience in different fields and holding two master’s degrees, it was not easy to sit home with an uncertain future. I’m still thinking it was an awful dream.

Freshta: Many things have changed for me and many other women. I had to leave behind my beloved country, my family, my dream career (through which I was able to assist many women and children), which I never thought would happen. I left my country with nothing. To be frank and honest, I am still in shock about what happened to my country; I feel I am dreaming a bad dream. I am trying to convince myself that, ‘Freshta, you are strong and you can restart and work again for your country to change things for the better.’

For many Afghans who could not afford or access flights out of the country, they make their way overland across borders. Some spend long stints in refugee camps waiting to be resettled. Photo: Shutterstock

Why is it so important for women to be involved in peace and security?

Freshta: Women, just as men, are part of society, and I believe women can play a very good and effective role in peace and security discussions. Of course, in every society both men and women live together, so to have a peaceful life and have justice in place, we should involve all parties while making decisions — whether it is peace or security or any other issue.

Tell us about your journey to activism. What inspires you to speak out?

Asila: I learnt from my late father to raise your voice whenever you see injustice and inequality. I was very much inspired by him, and that made me want to always speak up even if you face strong opposition, make some enemies or even are threatened. I paid a big price for my activism and lost my father but never gave up. This loss in my life made me more formidable and strengthened my will for the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Inspired by her father, Asila is committed to her activism on women’s and human rights. Photo: Provided by Asila Wardak

The women of Afghanistan today are different from the those of 2001. What are the changes you are seeing today in terms of women’s mobilization and activism? What are your greatest dreams and aspirations?

Freshta: Yes, the women of today are a lot different than those of 2001. Now we have many women and girls who are educated, qualified, experienced, strong in raising their voices, strong in communication and coordinating with the international community. Now they even have the support of their families and male family members, which they never had in 2001. They stand for their rights and raise their voices globally. My dreams and aspirations for women currently is to at least maintain the rights and opportunities which we have achieved during the last 20 years. But still that is not enough, as we were still struggling for equal rights for women and men. That is the dream –a country where both men and women live together in peace with no economic problems and poverty.

Asila: In 2001, women got the opportunity to go back to schools, universities and even outside the country for higher education, where thousands of girls and women graduated from international universities and came back to the country. I myself served as Minister Counselor to the Afghanistan Mission to the United Nations for four years, but after my job was done, I returned back to the country to serve my people. We had women in politics, business, cabinet, policy level and all sectors. Today they are trying to set us back, after two decades of achievements. But today’s Afghan women are more educated, more powerful, doing advocacy and continuing our struggles. This is my dream, and I believe that we will not go back. I want a stable, peaceful Afghanistan not only for women but for every Afghan who can live with dignity and with no fears and have good food every day on their tables.

In the last two decades, women have gained education and earned high-level positions in respected careers. While the future is uncertain, Asila says women are now more inclined to stand up for their rights. Photo: Shutterstock

You face so much adversity every day. What makes you carry on?

Freshta: My feelings are with my country, for my people, for women and girls and my family. I can’t see myself at peace until I see my people at peace. Although I am currently in one of the best countries in the world and one of my dream places, I don’t feel happy, as I am thinking of my people every second: of the challenges they are facing right now in Afghanistan, how women are feeling by losing everything and having no hope, what economic problems they are suffering from. I can’t stop myself from raising my voice for women and people of Afghanistan, and I will carry on helping women and girls.

Asila: This is true that I face adversity every single day. I’m jobless and homeless, but I can’t stay quiet and watch. I will continue my advocacy and struggle for the rights of Afghan women and children in trying to be the voice of half of our voiceless population. I’m like an ant that continues its efforts climbing up the wall despite falling down several times but never giving up. I believe in my struggle and efforts.

What makes you hopeful about women’s rights and women’s role in peace and security now or in the future?

Freshta: Today’s women are not the women of 2001. They are educated, they are aware of their rights, they have strong voices to raise now. Of course, the international support is a big hope for us that we will not give up. We will continue as we do and now even stronger, and we raise our voices from every part of the world, but it will take time to achieve what we want, as we did in the last 20 years. Now we have the experience of how to deal with a situation in conflict.

“I can’t stop myself from raising my voice for women and people of Afghanistan, and I will carry on helping women and girls,” says Freshta. Photo: Provided by Freshta Karimi

Asila: I’m the generation of resilience and sacrifice. Despite all political and economic challenges, we Afghan women count ourselves as equal citizens of Afghanistan and share the equal responsibility and right to education, work, business, media and sport. We were the biggest contributors to the country’s economy. The solidarity among Afghan women themselves is a great hope for the future. We have made good alliances in the past two decades among the international community, also with Afghan men who raised their voices in support of the rights of Afghan women. Afghan women are not alone anymore like in the 1990s.

Do you believe that international cooperation and development can have an impact when it comes to improving the lives of women living in conflict? If so, how?

Freshta: The achievements of the last 20 years for women are examples of the international community’s impact on women’s life. Afghanistan is a male-dominated country, and we would never have had the chances of achieving those achievements otherwise. We are expecting the international community to continue their cooperation and support for women. Please don’t give up.

In the past 20 years, Afghan women have taken on new roles and built alliances within the country and in the international community. Photo: UNDP

Asila: The role of international organizations and the UN is very important. UN and international organizations played a great role in Afghanistan. Afghans can’t forget their support and are looking forward for more humanitarian support. One thing is that UN and other international organizations must not mix politics with humanitarian aid and development work. Now millions of Afghans are in hunger; drought is another problem; the economy is collapsed. People, especially women-headed household don’t know if they will have their next meal or not.

What would you want the reader of this interview to do? What action can individuals out there take to support you and women’s rights?

Asila: I want the readers to understand and realize the misery and problems of Afghans, especially Afghan women who were always the first target of changing regimes. The readers can play their own role whoever and wherever they are. Politicians can support politically; development and humanitarian aid workers can engage women in their projects at different levels, including design, implementation and evaluation. They should bring more women, not only as beneficiaries, but as leaders and implementers. And those who read my interview I humbly request to not spare any kind of assistance to the refugees, displaced persons in their countries. Their moral and financial support at this stage is crucial.

Around the world major cities have seen mass protests in support of Afghan women and peace prevailing in the country. Fresha and Asila call for continued action. Photo: Shutterstock

Freshta: I request every person who reads this interview to stand with Afghans — especially with Afghan women and girls — by giving any kind of support you can. Even just writing a supporting sentence on your social media or wherever possible, please raise your voice for us wherever you are.

Freshta Karimi and Asila Wardak will join other women in a special event following the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security. On 28 October at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time, join UNDP and the Permanent Missions of Norway and the Republic of Korea for Women, Peace and Security: Sustaining development gains for Afghan women.

UNDP in Afghanistan
UNDP’s crisis response initiative, ABADEI, contributes to preventing a humanitarian catastrophe and the breakdown of the country’s economy as part of our overall response to the situation in Afghanistan.

ABADEI will channel funding into community activities including small and micro business grants (with a focus on those owned by women) and cash-for-work projects that will restore local small infrastructure and offer short-term income. It will also support people with disabilities, the elderly and the most vulnerable through temporary basic income and assistance in strengthening of natural disaster mitigation and resilience. ABADEI aims to reach 8 million people in urgent need of assistance over 24 months.

All assistance provided will be delivered to beneficiaries directly, based on impartial assessments carried out in conjunction with local community leaders, and independently of authorities.

ABADEI activities will be funded from contributions to UNDP and through the newly created Special Trust Fund for Afghanistan. This is a UN inter-agency and multi-partner funding mechanism to enable UNDP, UN agencies and non-government organizations to coordinate their support for community-level initiatives.