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Officials in Nangarhar province have vowed to take action following the publication of an IWPR investigation into the extent of sexual harassment at universities.
Academics and civil society activists in the eastern province also welcomed the recent expose, and thanked reporters for their efforts.
Speaking at a debate held in Jalalabad on February 11, officials said they wholeheartedly supported initiatives to combat the problem.
Students also said IWPR’s willingness to tackle such a sensitive topic had helped open up discussions on other subjects deemed equally taboo.
Niamatullah Hamdard, head of higher education in Nangarhar, said, “We will fight this problem as hard as we can.
“We’ve placed complaint boxes in all private and government universities and higher education institutions so that girls can share any issues they have with us.
“I personally visit each university every week to collect letters from the boxes and we intended to carefully investigate any complaint and do our level best to make suitable reforms.”
Around 60 people, including 20 female students, attended the IWPR event, which was later broadcast by a number of radio stations across Nangarhar, Laghman and Nuristan.
Hamdard opened the debate by thanking IWPR for publishing their recent expose on the levels of sexual harassment faced by female university students in Nangarhar women from both classmates and lecturers.
Hashima Sharif, provincial head of women’s rights at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said it was the responsibility of all university chancellors to monitor staff more closely and crack down on any improper behavior.
She told the audience, “This was an important report which highlighted the facts around this problem.
“I was once a victim of sexual harassment and I take the issue very seriously. I know there are university lecturers in Nangarhar province who sexually harass students on campus.”
Baghdad Armani, a psychologist, told the debate that he believed that for some men, sexually harassing women was a form of compulsion.
He asked mothers to ensure their daughters were aware of the types of problems they may encounter while on campus, and to stress to them that no one should feel shy about reporting instances of abuse.
“IWPR has focused in on an issue that no media network has dared to tackle and I thank them for organising this event,” Armani said. “Investigating and discussing these sorts of problems can be very effective.”
Khalilulllah Shinwari, a lecturer at Jalalabad’s Alfalah University, said his institution was attempting to appoint more female staff and in some instances had organised women-only classrooms.
“Prevention is better than treatment,” he argued.
In the final stages of the debate, students were given the opportunity to question the panel.
Computer science student Saira Saleem asked Hamdard how faculty officials treated complaints from students regarding inappropriate sexual behaviour.
She asked, “If a female student shares what has happened to her with the university’s administration, how seriously will the issue be investigated?”
Hamdard repeated that he intended to fight harassment to “the fullest possible extent” so that no students were made to feel uncomfortable in the future.
Audience member Huma Zaland then asked Sharif how effective she believed the AIHRC had been in combatting sexual harassment.
Sharif said that she was aware of ten cases in the province - outside of universities - where men had been jailed for violence against women.
“These men are now behind the bars,” she said. “We urge all women to come to us and report abuse without hesitating so that we can do our best to help them.”
Attaullah Khugyani, a spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar, also thanked IWPR and called for further such investigations.
He said, “I have read the report and listened to the debate and from now on we will meet with universities to help them address this issue.”
Zabihullah Rahimzai, a reporter for the BBC in Nangarhar, described IWPR’s reportage as “an innovation”.
“This is a sensitive issue which has now been read about and listened to on the radio by potentially thousands of people,” he continued.
Social activist Muqadasa Ahmadzai agreed, adding, “This is the very first time that such a debate on sexual harassment has been held in Nangarhar. I thank IWPR for working to improve the lives of so many women.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Supporting Investigative Reporting in Local Media and Strengthening Civil Society across Afghanistan initiative, funded by the British Embassy Kabul.
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