As U.S. troops gradually withdraw from Afghanistan and as the country nears a pivotal presidential election, gender roles and the status of women in Afghanistan have been thrown into uncertainty. Amidst that disruption, Amie Ferris-Rotman ’14, a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, has launched an initiative that aims increase the number of local Afghan female journalists working for international news agencies.
The Sahar Speaks project is a one-year, three-part mentorship and training program that will allow aspiring local female journalists to join agencies and produce investigate first-person reporting on the ongoing war. Ferris-Rotman said that she was inspired to develop the project while working as a foreign correspondent in Kabul for Reuters for two years.
“The more I looked around—looked at The New York Times, looked at BBC, looked at the Associated Press, all the major foreign news outlets that were operating out of Kabul—I realized that none of them hire local Afghan female reporters,” Ferris-Rotman said.
Even so, there are a significant number of female reporters in Afghanistan. According to Ferris-Rotman, there are almost over 2,000 Afghan female reporters in the country, but the majority of them work for local news, television and radio.
“None of them worked for foreign news outlets. To me, this just seemed like a total disaster,” she said. “It was heartbreaking as well because we weren’t getting proper stories about women out.”
Afghan-American filmmaker Miriam Arghandiwal, who interned for Reuters in Kabul while Ferris-Rotman was a senior correspondent, described her experience working for a foreign news agency as a lonely one and emphasized the value of projects like Sahar Speaks.
“I was probably one of the only Afghan females employed by international news agencies,” Arghandiwal said. “Afghanistan is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman and the road to actually try to access these women, and know their stories and their pain, is so complex and so dire to understand. Afghan women can understand that better than anyone else.”
Both Arghandiwal and Ferris-Rotman were adamant about the need for more investment in the security of the women in order to ensure any range of success.
“We need to go the extra step to get them to work,” Arghandiwal explained. “They need our investment in them. It’s not like they’re going to walk into our bureaus and be really assertive.”
“It’s something that can happen but you need news organizations that are willing to go the hard way. You have to stand up for women that are working for you and that [ensure] their security needs are being taken care of,” Arghandiwal said.
The project—one of 21 other Knight fellow projects—is currently in the process of seeking partnerships, non-profits and grants with which to move forward. Ferris-Rotman framed the amount of funding as a principal determinant of the program’s structure.
“The plan will depend on grant funding…whether it’s a Skype or phone relationship or actually going there. But I think going there is really crucial,” Ferris-Rotman said. “There are a lot of foreign women who are interested in helping out and who would love to go to Afghanistan and meet these women and help them.”
Looking toward the future, Ferris-Rotman discussed the value of her project in the face of a slowly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
“The question obviously is how badly it will deteriorate…[like] if it gets to a point like Syria when you can’t really operate anymore on many levels in terms of journalism,” Ferris-Rotman explained. “That only creates a need for a project like mine, to have Afghan women on the ground, reporting on their communities, what their life looks like in the face of such a security vacuum. It makes it more necessary [and] obviously it makes it more difficult.”
Contact Alexa Liautaud at alexal ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.