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A unique programme to empower Afghanistan’s women journalists

By Newsd
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In Afghanistan, women’s rights have been ignored and their livelihoods abused for decades. War, insecurity and poverty in a deeply patriarchal society have made Afghanistan one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman. This has deprived Afghanistan of the skills and talents of half of its population. Without the full participation of its country’s women, Afghanistan’s development is at risk of moving at a snail’s pace.

Afghan women have a burning desire to tell their stories to the world, and have their voices heard. This is where our programme Sahar Speaks comes in. Sahar Speaks is unique:

It is the first programme of its kind to produce consistent, high-quality journalism from Afghan female correspondents in a global news outlet. British-American journalist Amie Ferris-Rotman founded Sahar Speaks in 2015, in response to the dire situation in the international media scene in Kabul, where not a single Afghan woman worked for an English-language news outlet. In Afghanistan, where the genders are often strictly separated and most women cannot speak to most men, it is crucial to have Afghan female reporters. Instead, the Afghan woman’s story was being told by foreign men, foreign women and Afghan men.

There is no shortage of Afghan female journalists: of the country’s approximate 9,000 correspondents, about 2,000 are women. But they were routinely side-lined and pushed out of the international newsrooms in Kabul. This was a systemic failure by the international press – whose duty is to relay an accurate story to news consumers around the world – and urgent change was needed.

Our first round of training took place in Kabul in March 2016 in Kabul, where 12 Afghan female journalists from all spheres of life – we had family breadwinners, mothers, and women who had gone to great lengths to secure permission from the men in their lives to work outside the home – were trained in international journalism. They were then paired with a mentor – a successful, international female journalist who helped hone their skills and get their stories ready for publication.

Kabul, Afghanistan, March 2016
Afghan female journalists receive training during the inaugural round of Sahar Speaks. The initiative by Amie Ferris-Rotman provides training, mentoring and publishing opportunities for a global audience.
Photo: Joel van Houdt

In June 2016, the Huffington Post published the women’s multimedia stories. History was made in the first round: it marked the first time a global outlet published so many stories by Afghan female journalists. Twelve Afghan women had their articles published in the Huffington Post, telling stories of what it’s really like to be a woman in Afghanistan. Zahra Joya wrote of how she had to dress up as a boy just so she could attend school. Another tackled the taboo of menstruation, describing the shame some girls and their families feel once they start their periods. One brave journalist managed to get into the home of a woman traded to settle a debt and was married to an abuser. The stories were translated into other languages and shared thousands of ties around the globe – testament to how hungry the world is to hear the true stories of Afghan women.

It did not take long for global media to recognise the talents of our alumni. Since completing the programme, participant Zahra Nader was hired by the New York Times in Kabul, becoming the first Afghan woman to work for the foreign mainstream media there. Others have been invited to work for al Jazeera, AP, and German and Norwegian newspapers.

Our second round is near-completion. We trained 10 more female journalists in Kabul in visual storytelling. Their stories will be a mix of photo essays, short films and photo reels, reflecting their newfound skills in a sphere notoriously dominated by men in Afghanistan. For many Afghan women, simply leaving the home unaccompanied is a challenge, let alone filming.

At Sahar Speaks, we are determined to give more women a platform from which they can tell their stories, strive for change, and inspire others. We aim to change the paradigm that has contributed to the marginalization of women’s voices in Afghanistan, using the Sahar Speaks model in other parts of the country as well as the region.


Disclaimer: Newsd’s Group Editor Shutapa Paul mentored one of the Afghan journalists as part of Sahar Speak’s current programme.


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