June 20, 2011 — Wazhma Abdul Rahimzai serves as an advocate for women's and children's rights in Afghanistan, a mission that last week brought her thousands of miles from her home in Kabul to the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
During a three-week program in Virginia this month, Rahimzai and 10 other female leaders in public service, education, law and human rights in Afghanistan are meeting with some of their counterparts from Virginia and Washington, D.C., gathering information and asking pointed questions about how government operates in the United States.
Rahimzai is the program manager for the Women & Children Legal Research Foundation, which identifies women's and children's problems and challenges by conducting research and seeks fair treatment for all citizens, especially women and children, through advocacy and awareness-raising programs.
"Based on findings from our research, we advocate at the national level that they accept the rights of women and children in the communities, as well as urging the lawmakers and policymakers to use our research findings as resources during the making of laws and policies," Rahimzai said.
"We also go to talk to the mullahs, to villagers and to the heads of all those who are authorities and influences in the community" to urge them that Koranic law affirms women's rights, as well as emphasizing "all our related national laws that also protect women's and children's rights."
"It's very clear, but they don't know that, and they have power over women," she said, adding that these local leaders resist full rights for women and children "because the religion is more special for them, but they're wrong" in their understanding.
Justice William Mims of the Virginia Supreme Court touched on the same topic, lecturing on "the principle of equality under the law" in the United States when he addressed the group Thursday morning.
Mims traced the principle "directly back to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. … Whether you are a man or a woman, whether you were born in the United States or whether you are new to the United States, no matter what your religion is, and various other factors that you cannot control – those will not affect the courts' decisions with regard to you."
Other presentations gave an unvarnished view to the Afghans of the difficulties that the country has had living up to this promise. Karenne Wood of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities discussed the treatment of Native Americans, and actress Daphne Maxwell Reid, co-owner of a Petersburg film studio, talked of the evolving role of African-Americans in U.S. history, including the election of President Barack Obama.
The Afghan delegation also is visiting numerous historic sites, bringing up issues of American history and politics at Monticello, Montpelier, Williamsburg and Jamestown.
Their visit is known officially as the Global Perspectives on Democracy U.S.-Afghanistan Professional Partnership Program. Co-sponsors include the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the private non-profit organization Relief International.
Mims said after his talk that he was "truly honored" to be asked to address the delegation from Afghanistan. "These women are creating a free and democratic government and society in Afghanistan, so it's much like our nation two centuries ago. To the extent that the principles that are the bedrocks of America's democracy can be shared, we should do so," he said.
The women also have been meeting during the day with various professionals in the area, learning alongside employees at the Rutherford Institute, the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, and the Virginia Organizing Project. Other activities have included attending a "Fridays After Five" concert on the Downtown Mall, a meeting with the Muslim Christian Women's Group of Charlottesville and visits to the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, historic sites in Lexington and the Buena Vista Fiddlers Convention. The group also met with Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli and toured the state capitol, and attended a Charlottesville City Council meeting and met with Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris.
The Afghan delegation is the latest international group to attend programs held by the Center for Politics during the past five years, said Daman Irby, director of operations for the Center for Politics and deputy director of instruction of the Youth Leadership Initiative. Some 350 participants have attended since the center began holding International Youth Democracy Summits in the summer of 2006, including high school students representing 42 states and 22 countries. Participants in the past two years have come from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India. They returned to their countries to lead programs in researching freedom of the press, developing student leaders and promoting civic engagement by young people, Irby said. One participant, Dilshy Banu of Sri Lanka, pursued humanitarian work among people held in refugee camps and also wrote a novel, "Goddess on the Shore of Sunrise," influenced by her human rights advocacy.
Future programs will be held next month and next year for an expected 55 more visitors from Afghanistan. Other pending proposals could bring in more groups next year and in 2013. Plans also call for three Americans to visit Afghanistan in the fall and in 2012 to study organizations there.
During Mims' talk Thursday, he fielded questions and challenges from the Afghans, including concerns about a juvenile court case where a child faced a yearlong suspension from school due to "a very, very minor infraction. … It seems to us very minor, but the law seems to come down very hard on children," said Hamida Nizami, director of basic education for the Ministry of Education, whose question in the Dari language was translated into English.
Mims responded that he has spent much of his career "as an advocate for children, particularly those who have mental illness, and trying to reform our current system." He said that most children in court "should receive the services they need within their family setting and within the community setting because that's how they are able to turn their lives around. It's important for me to say that, although we Americans are proud of our system and we want to pat ourselves on the back, that our system is not perfect, and we must continue to have self-reflection and to look for ways to reform our system to make it better."
The translator, Omar Malikyar, later said the court case appeared to be one of zero tolerance for a juvenile offense, where “someone had used a marble or something” to hit a classmate and was suspended. Nizami said, "We have different levels of discipline" for schoolchildren in Afghanistan. Suspension comes only after school authorities first talk with a student and then, later, warn a student if the offense happens again.
"If it continues, we suspend them, but they can always … participate in the final exams [to] pass [them]," she said. "The law should be more understanding and to come up with different ways of correcting it and making sure that the kid understands as a result, rather than suspending him for a year from school."
Rahimzai said the program is valuable for the Afghans to gain a "broad view of the judiciary system" and the administration of government and social services in the United States. "Based on the ideas [and] the information we gain from here, it works for [the] improvement of our work in our organization and in our country," she said.