Overcoming Barriers and Empowering Through Education. Member Spotlight: Duniya Stanikzai

“Women are one of the most important bodies of the government, family. Projects that have involvement of women encourage other women to be part of it, and deliver a message to Afghanistan and the international society, that even though the situation is getting worse, that women chose to stand for their rights”

Watch this powerful video on the current situation of Afghanistan that several MBBI members created.

Connection to MBBI

Duniya Stanikzai is an Afghan attorney, arbitrator, and mediator based in Pittsburg, US. During the course of her studies at Kabul University, where she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and Political Science in 2014, she got involved in moot court activities and became the first Afghan woman to participate in international Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot competitions held in Qatar, Hong Kong, and Vienna. After that, she started training other students and established an Afghanistan Vis Alumni Network, which now has more than 100 members from 16 Afghan universities. Duniya was also involved with the establishment of the Afghanistan Center for Commercial Dispute Resolution which provides services that didn’t exist in the country before: mediation and arbitration. After passing the bar exam in Afghanistan, she started working with multiple law firms and international organizations on projects related to rule of law. Later on, she decided to continue education which resulted in a Master’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs from Kardan University in 2020, and second degree focused on International and Comparative Law from the University of Pittsburgh in May 2021. Duniya also served as a deputy director at Shining Star Educational Organization of Afghanistan and is currently a legal advisor providing consultation to international firms based in the US and Afghanistan.

As a new member of Mediators Beyond Borders International, Duniya started to build a team of currently five women, four of them located in Afghanistan, with a plan to start peacebuilding projects in the country. With the current situation in Afghanistan, when the US troops are leaving, the security situation is getting worse, especially when the Taliban are threatening women and their freedom, as a result, they might not be allowed to get education the way they used to do anymore. Duniya and hear teammates find this situation scary, so they are planning peacebuilding projects in that area, to make women part of society as they should be.

Empowering Afghan women

When asked about her greatest achievement, Duniya recalls the time when she was a law student and for the first time in Afghanistan participated in an international competition that would require her to travel abroad. At that time it was really hard for people to let their daughters get an education and higher degree, fortunately, her family has been always supportive, but there were other women in the group selected, and unfortunately, one of them was not allowed to travel. “In Afghanistan, we say there should be a Maharam, a male from the family, husband or brother, who should travel alongside, and the program did not allow it. So there were obstacles like that. Even when we were applying for a visa, they were not encouraging women to go outside of the country and travel alone. But that was some challenge that I stood for and I did that.” Afterward, she realized that she really loved the program and what she learned from her trips abroad. It made her feel like she shouldn’t be the only one to do that and should encourage other women and their families that traveling is not a bad thing, it is good for career children. “Afterward, I would select girls to participate in the program and I enlarged it from 4 students to 100 students now. It is volunteering, I have never get paid for it, that is the feeling I wanted to build up. Now the alumni are all female, they don’t ask that you shouldn’t travel, they travel to different countries around the world, they are bringing change. Then they are following the same path, training other students, voluntarily spreading education, knowledge. I am proud to see students who I trained getting key positions in government and outside of the country” Duniya adds. 

Correcting the Culture

Duniya also believes that culture plays a big role in every society, not only education but every aspect of people’s lives. She says that culturally in Afghanistan there are a lot of restrictions that do not even exist as the Islamic rules, and people cannot go ahead without correcting the culture. It is not an easy task to do, it might take ages to bring a change, it’s not something you plan today and it will be done tomorrow. On the other hand, there are also good things in the culture that should be kept. Regarding mediation, in Afghanistan mediation didn’t exist in the laws, but it was present in traditional culture. “If there was a conflict between families, they would have tribal leaders, or leaders of the family would come together, and then they would process the problem and come to a decision. So it’s kind of informal mediation or arbitration that is in place, in most of the areas we still have that informal mediation” Duniya says. Where people don’t go to the court or formal mediator, they just solve the problem with the leaders. It came from culture, Afghanistan modernized it and came up with a new system. Culture has also had a big impact on the educational opportunities of the country. In some countries, the opportunities are there, but in some countries, there are cultural barriers or restrictions, wrong beliefs about the Islamic traditions, a society that does not encourage students, especially the girls to get an education. “I think this is an achievement to see how the mindset was changed over the past years. I was starting in 2014, and now I see how it had been changed, now the student wants to come and be a part of this program rather us going and asking for them.”

Impact of the pandemic

Regarding her experience as a mediator during the COVID pandemic, Duniya says that during the first part of the pandemic, everything stopped all over the country, people didn’t know how to respond to it, and how to do mediation. Then when everyone found out that this pandemic and virus is not going away easily, they started to find ways to do their work. But fortunately now, since the vaccines are there people are a bit relieved. Mediators found a way of using the technology, setting up the zoom meetings, where the parties and mediators can join and talk. “I attended the mediation two weeks ago, it was an internship with one of the mediators, I went there and people were sitting apart in one room. The other sessions were held online, so of course, it has an impact and for countries such as Afghanistan, where there are no technology, electricity, and internet problems, this is creating obstacles, but people are fortunately finding a way around it.”

Why mediation?

In her final message, Duniya states that mediation is one of the great tools to have for the people if they have any problem, especially if they want to come together instead of just sitting there, not resolving anything, or going to other means that are very time-consuming. With the mediation, the advantage is that most of the time we can come to an agreement where both parties are satisfied, it is a win-win situation, you resolve the problem without going to other formal means that take time. Usually, it is binding, you can live with that decision if you want, and if you don’t, you have other tools that you can follow: court, arbitration, or any other means. “The first step is always mediation and negotiation which is a good tool, and I think people should really get used to this. If you choose mediation, you will see a lot of advantages, save money, save time and be happy.”

Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer