As Domestic Violence Awareness Month draws to a close, we are pleased to share a recent interview we had with Najia Nasim, Executive Director of Women for Afghan Women (WAW). Keep on reading to hear about her new role and WAW’s continued commitment to supporting Afghan women and families.
Initially having plans to become a doctor, Najia made her way to WAW after realizing its mission allowed her to make significant changes in the lives of Afghan women and children. With the passion and motivation to make a difference, Najia became WAW’s Afghanistan Country Director in 2014 and was promoted to Executive Director in January 2019. “Every day we work through the challenges. That is the hard part. But at the same time, the smiles, the hope, the successes, the end results of our work and the positive impact– it’s all worth it,” she says about her experience.
Intimate partner violence affects more than 12 million people annually, according to the Office of Justice Programs. In New York City, domestic violence accounted for 17.5% of homicides recorded in 2017, according to data from the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
For Afghan women adjusting to life in the United States, this epidemic is often intensified by cultural differences, language barriers and varying levels of education.
WAW’s record of supporting survivors extends back to 2001 when the organization was first founded to support women living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Since then, WAW has expanded their base with their New York Community Center, where more than 1,000 women are served annually. WAW is also now the largest women’s organization in Afghanistan, with over 850 staff, the majority of whom are women, and 6,000 individuals accessing their programs annually. Although Afghanistan continues to face security challenges, Najia is proud to work with a team of human rights defenders. “They have basically risked their own life to save the lives of others, no matter what position they are in,” she said.
Afghan women in New York City may have certain liberties and freedoms not afforded to them in Afghanistan, but navigating a new country can be incredibly difficult without the proper support. “In New York, women have the right to get educated, they have the right to work, they have the right to seek justice,” she said. “But someone needs to assist them and tell them that these are their rights, and that they can do all this.” And meeting that need is exactly what WAW sets out to do, providing a comprehensive package of services for clients. Offering confidential case management and pro bono legal assistance, ESL, citizenship, and driver’s education classes, women’s circles, and leadership and after school programs for children and youth, WAW is a lifeline for immigrant and refugee communities in New York City.
Najia also identifies the isolation Afghan and other immigrant women face in their new lives in the United States as a major challenge. “It takes a long time for them to feel they are part of this society,” she explained.
From women now serving in the Parliament of Afghanistan to holding key positions at nonprofits and other businesses, Afghanistan and Afghan women have seen tremendous improvements over the past 18 years— but running an organization dedicated to women’s rights and protection still comes with risks. WAW’s network of services in Afghanistan includes programs and 32 centers across 16 provinces. Of the 32 centers, 12 are Women’s Protection Centers that provide confidential and safe shelter until the cases of endangered women and girls have been resolved. “The Women’s Protection Centers are a new concept in Afghanistan, so it still comes with a lot of challenges and a lot of risks. Our staff is going through that every day,” Najia says.
No matter the time of year, WAW continues to work to create a world free of gender-based violence. “When it comes to domestic violence, I would say that we, as an organization, always fight for the elimination and reduction of violence against women,” Najia says. WAW has trained more than 360,000 individuals across Afghanistan on how to advocate for and educate others on women’s rights. At the New York Community Center (NYCC), this month also featured events to raise awareness among WAW’s clients and emphasizing the importance of the fight to end gender-based violence, including co-sponsoring the Silent March coordinated annually by the Korean American Family Service Center and participating in a resource fair at the Queensborough president’s office.
For as much success as WAW has seen, support is still needed to see sustained change in the lives of Afghan women and children. Najia credits The New York Women’s Foundation as an early supporter of WAW, investing in the organization during its first stages.
“The Foundation believed in WAW from the beginning, when we started our work with only one to two staff members and 10-15 clients,” she says.
The Foundation was also a supporter of WAW’s Know Your Rights program, which provides information sessions, direct and referral services for immigrants, raises awareness about immigrant rights and assists women and men in the Afghan, South Asian, and Muslim communities in better understanding and responding to immigration challenges. As WAW continues through Domestic Violence Awareness Month and beyond, Najia expresses gratitude for the support the organization receives in helping Afghan and other immigrant women and families realize their fullest potential.
“Coming to WAW is like a door of hope for our clients. Everyone that contributes to WAW gives women, children, and all of our clients hope,” she says. “With this support, our clients are able to not only serve themselves but to become agents of change in their community. Philanthropy actually makes this happen.”