The television images of the public execution of an Afghan woman in a crammed sports stadium in Kabul have been burnt into our collective memory and put the violation of human rights - and in particular of women's rights - by the Taliban high on the international political agenda. What many people do not know is that the video footage was clandestinely shot by members of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
RAWA was founded in Kabul in 1977 as an independent political and social organization. Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, RAWA's activities focused on strengthening the Afghan people's awareness of democracy and fundamental human - more specifically women's - rights. During the Soviet occupation RAWA resolutely but peacefully turned against the invader. Under the subsequent Taliban regime, the organization was also very active. For example, its members set up schools in refugee camps in Pakistan and established a hospital and mobile medical teams so as to be able to provide urgently needed aid to refugee women and children.
In spite of the oppressive regime and the constant threats that RAWA had to face in Afghanistan itself, the organization launched a wide range of socio-political activities. RAWA members risked their lives when they continued to teach girls and to provide literacy classes for illiterate women, thus defying the Taliban's explicit orders. RAWA also organized first-aid classes and mobile medical teams and set up projects to help war widows and orphans support themselves.
RAWA believes in a society based on fundamental human values - peace, freedom, democracy - and rejects both excessively secularized and fanatically religious regimes. The organization incessantly spoke out against human rights violations by both the Soviet invader and later the Taliban. Under the Taliban in particular, the Afghan population endured great suffering. Women saw their rights eroded and their physical freedom of movement so restricted that they virtually disappeared from public and political life.
RAWA's main objectives for the future are on the one hand to further the emancipation of Afghan women via projects that encourage them to play an active role in the socio-political and economic recovery of their country and, on the other, to promote women's education. RAWA indeed regards education as the means par excellence to rebuild society on a fairer basis. In this sense, RAWA's objectives with regard to education correspond to those of the University of Antwerp.
Because the attention of the media has of late been focused on the Middle East, in particular on Iraq, many in the western world think that the problems in Afghanistan have been solved. However, the recent changes remain superficial and are, moreover, mostly restricted to the capital, Kabul. Women are still harassed when they venture out of doors without wearing their burkas, girls' schools are still targets of gratuitous violence and both pupils and teachers are intimidated, while a large part of the population is even now deprived of basic health care. RAWA also remains an organization under close surveillance. In the past its members have been the victims of violence, imprisonment and even murder. Even now they are forced to use false names and to hide under their burkas for security reasons.
In spite of the many difficulties that RAWA members face on a day-to-day basis and the permanent shortage of funds with which you have to contend, the brave women of RAWA continue to help build a better future for the people of Afghanistan, in particular for women, via aid projects in the fields of education, vocational training and health care. That is why we wish to honour all of you today, both individually and as an organization.
For the above reasons I request that the Rector-Chairman confer upon RAWA an honorary doctorate of the University of Antwerp.
On May 16, 2003, honorary doctorate for outstanding non-academic achievements was given to a RAWA member during a ceremony in Antwerp-Belgium.