Mahnaz Afkhami, a leading advocate of women’s rights for more than three decades, is founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), an international organization that empowers women by developing curricula to train them to become leaders in politics, business, and civil society. WLP has conducted leadership-training workshops in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, and Brazil. The basic curriculum has been adapted to 17 languages.
Born in Iran, Mahnaz Afkhami chaired the English department at the National University of Iran, founded the Association of Iranian University Women, and served as Secretary General of the Women's Organization of Iran and minister of state for women's affairs prior to the Islamic revolution. She fled Iran when her life was threatened and has lived in the United States since 1982. She says the Women’s Learning Partnership began in 2000 at a New York University conference with a group of women largely from the Middle East and North Africa who were exploring the “most urgent needs of women as we entered the 21st century.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA and with VOA Uzbek senior editor Navbahor Imamova, Ms. Afkhami says the new organization focused on leadership and the creation of curricula and training for leadership, but which are adjusted to the “cultural and linguistic context” of each society.
Mahnaz Afkhami says WLP’s partner organizations, which are normally small and community based, help organize and implement these training workshops. However, she says, the working arrangements can be difficult. In Uzbekistan, Ms. Afkhami explains, WLP has had to “suspend its partnership” because of severe restrictions on non-governmental organizations. Nonetheless, she says WLP has found a way to work with Uzbek women through the regional training it organizes in Central Asia, particularly with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. She says an institute for “trainers and facilitators” is planned for later this year.
Much of the work with partner organizations takes place on the WLP website, which operates in English, French, and Arabic. Mahnaz Afkhami explains that one of the “campaigns for change” involves the reform of Islamic family law. Such campaigns, she says might explore how women are impacted by polygamy, child marriage, or “male-dominated divorce law.” And from such workshops, she says plans are developed for approaching decision-makers or mobilizing the public. In the case of the reform of family law, she says partnerships began with organizations in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Those training materials have since been translated and now, she says, Malaysia, Singapore, and The Philippines are conducting similar campaigns. One such campaign, “One Million Signatures,” is underway in Iran. WLP also provides e-courses in Persian for Iranian and Afghan women. In the case of Uzbekistan and Iran, Ms. Afkhami explains, WLP has to think of creative ways to communicate, train, and share experiences. She calls developing sophistication in the use of information technology a critical component.
Women’s Learning Partnership also sponsors conferences in neighboring countries where training is provided and where networking skills are developed. Whenever possible, WPL works through civic organizations, through governmental organizations that provide services to women, and through the media so as to reach the widest possible audience. The Women’s Learning Partnership recently sponsored an international conference in Washington, DC, along with the School of Advanced International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University. Among the principal speakers, Ms. Afkhami says, were women leaders from Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia, Palestine, Mauritania, Kyrgyzstan, and Nicaragua, who shared some of the methods they had used to overcome potential obstacles – political or otherwise. For example, she says, setting a specific “quota” for women in the national parliament or in regional and local councils has been used effectively in so-called transitional societies. Ms. Afkhami has published extensively on women’s issues. She is the author of four books and the co-author of two leadership manuals, which have been translated in numerous languages. She is also executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies.
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