Building a more just Society
Sajia Behgam has made a name for herself: for the past three years, the 36-year-old has been advising Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Dr Abdullah on gender equality policy. The university graduate is committed to ensuring that women get the same social and career opportunities as men. Behgam’s goal is the introduction of women-friendly policies across the board. She also campaigns on youth issues.
The situation for women in Afghanistan has improved over the past 15 years. Following the overthrow of the Taliban, the country began to promote the cause of women to a greater extent, and the current national gender strategy grants women many rights. There are gender representatives in the ministries as well as one dedicated specifically to women’s affairs. There are also women in the Afghan parliament and in leadership positions. ‘His Excellency Abdullah Abdullah is a supporter of gender equality,’ highlights Behgam.
Yet the political advisor is not satisfied with how things stand. She knows that, in some cases, participation only exists on paper and equality laws are not always applied. ‘Above all, there is still a lot to do in the countryside,’ says Behgam. The number of girls completing their education is actually in decline in some regions, while Afghanistan remains in urgent need of women experts such as lawyers, doctors and teachers, Behgam explains.
Her own career could serve as an inspiration for many women. Behgam comes from a family that values education and social engagement. This led her to seize the opportunity to take part in a university programme for Afghans in Germany in 2010, completing a Master’s degree in public policy at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt.
After completing her studies in 2013, she went back to Afghanistan with the support of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. On behalf of the German government, GIZ helps highly qualified returnees, for example, to find a job. The goal is to place well-trained employees in key positions at authorities, ministries and universities, where they can get involved in their country’s development and pass the knowledge they have gained abroad onto colleagues. The returnees are also bridge builders between Afghanistan, Germany and international partners.
This ‘return of talent’ approach is driven by the fact that Afghanistan has lost many experts over the past few years and decades. Forced out by war and political unrest, these well-trained workers opted for a future abroad. Yet highly qualified women and men are urgently needed in order to stabilise the country.
Behgam was always certain that she would return: ‘After completing my degree in Germany, it was my dream and my goal to contribute my experience to the education system in Afghanistan.’ Alongside her activities advising the Chief Executive, Behgam is also employed at Kabul University where she teaches public policy and organisational development, passing on the knowledge she gained in Germany to her students.
After she returned from Germany, Behgam first started working as a gender and policy advisor for GIZ where her role included working on national equal opportunities policy and raising awareness of gender issues. GIZ also helped Sajia Behgam to reintegrate into society and professional life after her several years studying abroad in Germany.
The gender expert switched to working for the government in 2015. ‘As an advisor on German international cooperation projects, I was able to make suggestions and provide guidance. However, I wanted to be in a position to change things from inside the government,’ Behgam explains.
It was not easy at the beginning to convince her older colleagues of her expertise and experience. ‘But, at some point, they started to take me seriously and recognise my skills,’ Behgam remembers. This was an important experience for her: ‘Regardless of whether you’re male or female, if you want to overcome the doubters, you must be qualified, do good work, and be able to see things through.’ Today, Behgam has 16 members of staff reporting directly to her – she, the boss, is the only woman in her team.
Behgam knows that seeing things through and making changes can only be done collectively. Her approach is to involve the public in political decision-making processes: ‘We Afghans must take our affairs into our own hands. Only then can our society develop further.’ Her experience abroad enables her to make comparisons between Germany and her home country. Rather than taking anything for granted, she questions the way things are and strives for improvement. For example, she favours ‘positive discrimination’: to train more female experts, Behgam wants to make it easier for women to go to university.
She feels her own career has a while to go yet. Her next goal is diplomatic service – she wants to represent Afghanistan at the United Nations. Behgam names Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel as her role model: ‘She is a very strong woman who works very hard.’ To steer a country’s destiny – that is a path that the Afghan thinks is worth following.
Since 2010, a total of 173 integrated and returning experts have been supporting 32 Afghan ministries and authorities as part of German cooperation with Afghanistan.
Published: November 2019
Programme: Integrated and Returning Experts
Commissioning party: Federal Foreign Office (AA)
Partners: Afghan ministries and institutions
Implementing organisation: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH
Provinces: Balkh, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Paktia
Programme objective: Develop effective state administrative structures
Overall term: January 2010 – December 2020