There is cause for some optimism on the improving status of women in Afghanistan, but progress is fragile and hard-fought according to the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission Dr Sima Samar.
Speaking during a recent visit to UTS, Dr Samar, founder of the Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education, said "a great achievement" was Afghanistan's signing the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women without reservation.
However, she noted the "ongoing immense challenges" in ensuring the convention was effectively implemented so that women could access their rights. She said Afghanistan was far from equality. "The environment is not good for men but it is bad for women."
In terms of the work of the Gawarshad Institute, Dr Samar highlighted the importance of gender empowerment through the provision of scholarships for young women from poor families who could not otherwise afford to access higher education.
Since the 2013 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Gawarshad Institute, UTS has assisted in fundraising for scholarships and Dr Samar's visit had refocused that effort according to Associate Professor Nina Burridge from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Associate Professor Burridge said UTS education academics had also conducted joint research with the institute and would continue to work with UTS Luminary and current UTS Law PhD student Nasima Rahmani, who is Director of the Women's Empowerment Centre at the Gawharshad Institute.
"We hope to look at issues related to the employment of women once they have graduated," Associate Professor Burridge said.
"Work we did with the Institute during 2014-15 documented the educational aspirations of young women in Afghanistan – particularly living in Kabul – and the challenges and barriers they faced. That's within a context where only 5 per cent of the Afghan population attends university and less than 20 per cent of university students are female.
"It was an attempt to listen to the voices of Afghan women to ascertain what they see as the best ways to improve their educational outcomes. We also interviewed some men and their views were also noted.
"The findings illustrated that while progress has been made in enabling a small percentage of women to pursue higher education, there are still significant and enduring obstacles for Afghan women seeking such a path."
UTS doctoral student and co-author of the study Anne Maree Payne said that she was impressed by the work of the Independent Human Rights Commission under Dr Sama's leadership in addressing some of the ongoing human rights issues in Afghanistan.
In her talk at UTS Dr Samar highlighted the priority still given by families to educating boys rather than girls as a key area to address.
She said changes to both male and female attitudes towards women was a continuing focus for the Gawarshad Institute and she described working with male students to challenge their stereotypes and perceptions about the roles of women within their families.
For Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Lucy Fiske, Dr Samar reaffirmed the importance of participation in any development and peace building efforts if they are to be successful – that empowerment, democracy and development cannot be "given" or delivered, but must be built with the people.