INTERVIEW/BIOGRAPHY: A Vision for Afghanistan: Kabul's Leading Female MP Sets out her Hopes and Fears

The Guardian
Wednesday, April 6, 2011 - 20:00
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding
Initiative Type: 

For me there are two reasons to be an MP. First, I come from a political family: my father was also a member of parliament during what we call the "democracy decade" in the 1970s. Second, I've experienced many different problems and discrimination just for being a woman, especially during the Taliban period, and I want to fight for that to change.

I have lived my whole life in Afghanistan – I didn't leave during the Taliban rule – and this gave me more strength to fight for change. After 2001, when women were allowed to go into politics, I wanted to make a difference and to fight for my causes.

At the first election in 2005 the situation was different to what it is now: there was more happiness and hope for women's political participation. The government was supportive and there were fewer threats and less security concerns.

I faced more political challenges in 2010 than in 2005, perhaps because the other candidates didn't see me as just a woman but as an opponent. I was also constantly receiving security warnings. It was very uncertain for me whenever I travelled to the Badakhshan province, which I represent. I was not sure if I would return, so I was very pleased when I got the top vote for women all over Afghanistan. My sister won in the neighbouring province, so now I think of the whole of the north-east region as my constituency.

Badakhshan is a mountainous province. It borders India, China and Tajikistan, so it is culturally more open than other parts of Afghanistan, but it is very poor and remote with very few jobs. It has a lot of educated men and women but some of the worst social indicators, particularly for women, such as maternal mortality and infant mortality.

I think there is a lack of political commitment from the central government to the area, but there are also problems because it is a very big province, the second-biggest in Afghanistan, and educated people are concentrated in the capital, Kabul. But even if you are educated, if you don't have a job you can't contribute to the economy or the health system. Last year 80 doctors graduated from the medical university but none was able to get a job as a doctor. There is no proper development system in place for the province.

For the average woman in Badakhshan, life means having six or seven children, born back-to-back, since family planning is very poor. Her life is spent bringing them up and doing chores at home: animal husbandry, feeding and milking the cow, baking bread.

The age of marriage is changing. When I was a child my sister-in-law married aged 11. Now the average is 14 or 15 years old, but many girls at that age, having had insufficient nutrition, are not ready to have a child. Children are often delivered in an unhygienic environment without a nurse, doctor or midwife. Sometimes women deliver their own children. A few hours later the new mother will be back at work, because she has to.

Women can live three days' journey away from a health clinic. Traditionally many families don't take a pregnant women to see a doctor unless they have complications, but by then it is too late.

For most of our people, security is not even one of their main problems: these are health and poverty. Eight out of 10 people who come to me as an MP come for jobs, and I don't run a business or anything. Sometimes these people don't have money to pay the rent because they are so broke.

What both the government and the international community need to do is allocate funds for health and other facilities, allocate it in ways that is transparent to everyone and monitor their use. Many people die because of bombings and insecurity, but this is much more dangerous – the deaths of women and children damages the whole infrastructure of society.

To achieve this we need to keep going forward with democracy. One of the main achievements of 2001 for the women of the world, for the taxpayers of the world, was women's freedom in Afghanistan. If we lose these values, the country will go back hundreds of years.

The election in 2010 showed that the Afghan people really trust women; they want women to participate in daily life and politics. We need to keep momentum, we want democracy and women's participation, we can't go back. The problems, what threatens that advance, are the traditional leaders, the huge number of weapons in Afghanistan and all the money earned by drugs and guns.

My plan is to run for the presidency in 2014. One has to make a choice: I could flee to the UK or America with my daughters and watch the situation, watch my country go where the traditional leaders want, or stay here and make a small contribution. I've decided to go for the second choice. Even if we lose life we pave the way for others.

I have two daughters. The eldest is 12 and wants to be a space scientist; the other is 11 and wants to be the president. They are both very much interested in politics. My house is always full of people and they know the people's problems.

I think they should decide for themselves, but I think it will be very hard for them to stay away from politics. When my father was killed, when my brothers were killed, it was thought there was no hope for this family to emerge again into politics. My surviving brothers were afraid. They didn't want to be in politics, but my family has a place among the community. It started with both of my grandfathers, who were community elders, in the days before there were MPs.

I want to give to the world a message: you should have faith in Afghanistan. You hear about all the fighting and war, but there is another side to Afghanistan. It is a country with a lot of natural resources and wealth. The only thing we don't have are strong leaders who could take the people forward with moderate Islamic faith. With good leaders and faith, we can live in the world.

Fawzia Koofi was speaking to Natalie Bennett, editor of the Guardian Weekly. The interview was arranged by Save the Children to mark the publishing of the Missing Midwives report, which concludes that globally 350,000 more midwives are needed to ensure all women give birth in safe environments