Last week Farida "Kokikhel" Afridi, director of the Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA), a Pakistani non-governmental organisation dedicated to women's and children's rights, was murdered in the Khyber tribal region area as she travelled to her office. Witnesses saying they saw two motorcyclists following Afridi before they opened fire and sped away --- she was shot once in the head and twice in the neck, dying in hospital of her wounds.
The 25-year-old activist co-founded SAWERA with her sister Noorzia in 2004. Despite threats, she criticised the government, the Taliban, and the patriarchal nature of Pakistani society, which she saw as one of the main obstacles to women's empowerment.
The Express Tribune wrote in an editorial of tribute and regret:
Farida Afridi was shot dead in cold blood for the crime of being a decent, caring human being. As the executive director of the human rights NGO, Sawera, Afridi was working in Fata performing the most thankless of jobs: trying to improve the plight of women in an area where many people have never even considered the concept of women’s rights.
Chris Crowstaff of Safe World for Women, a partner of SAWERA, offers further recollections.
The Murder of Farida Afridi: Not Safe, After All
On Friday 6th July, we learnt that Farida Afridi, co-founder of SAWERA, Safeworld Field Partner in Pakistan, had been brutally murdered. According to news sources, Farida was shot by militants while on her way to work.
In September last year, our Field Partners Manager, Jennifer Timmons, wrote me an e-mail about an article she had come across: "Positive Pakistanis: Sister Act".
The sisters, Noorzia and Farida Afridi, had set up an NGO in one of the most conservative and patriarchal regions of Pakistan, in an isolated, mountainous, tribal area less than 50 miles from the border with Afghanistan.
We were so impressed with the two young women and their work, that we took the unusual step of writing to them to ask if they would be interested in becoming a Field Partner of Safeworld.
What struck us was their youth and sense of hope, energy and optimism, their sensitivity to local cultural issues, and the obvious respect and admiration shown to them by many in the local community.
By December, we were able to profile SAWERA (Society for Appraisal & Women Empowerment in Rural Areas) on the new Field Partners section of our website, with the information they had sent us.
Our agreement with our Field Partners is that they send us quarterly updates for publication, to highlight their work.
When the April updates were due, we had no word from SAWERA. By May, I began to grow alarmed.
I knew there had been some brutal incidents and murders around Peshawar, in recent months. Moreover, FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) is not bound by Pakistani laws. Those working there do not have the rights guaranteed to Pakistani citizens by the Constitution.
Noorzia's words, from that first article Jen had found, echoed in my mind and haunted me:
We told our parents that we would work in accordance with our religious and cultural traditions, assuring them that we would never let the family honour suffer because of our line of work. Finally, they agreed.
The sisters were undaunted by concerns for their safety. Their determination to empower the women in their region overcame any doubts. “The government is oblivious of the general attitude of tribesmen towards women and the extent of inequality in our patriarchal society. This pushed us to start a struggle for their empowerment,” Farida said.
At the end of May, I asked a contact in Pakistan to phone them and check on their safety. He was reassured that they were absolutely fine and safe, working with SAWERA.
They subsequently submitted their first update to us a couple of days later. When we read their update, we were even more in awe of their work. "Women Promote Peace and Security in Khyber Province and Khyber Agency FATA" was published on 13th June.
SAWERA had received funding to train women in conflict resolution and peace building, providing women with awareness on political and social rights in the light of Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan. They were getting a good response and large attendance. In addition, SAWERA had partnered with CARE International to provide humanitarian assistance so that flood-affected families could start to restore their lives.
The organisation was growing and flourishing.
I began to think, and hope, that my own concerns were unfounded, that the region was indeed moving forwards and perhaps the situation was over-dramatised by the media.
What I didn't know, was that at around the time we published their update, Farida had started to receive threats relating to her work, telling a journalist from the Pakistan Times, "I could even be killed in Peshwar."
News of Farida's death has shaken us to the core.
We feel close to our Field Partners. Strong bonds grow via the internet, across oceans, deserts and mountains. We feel a responsibility towards them. They are like family.
It is hard to grasp the challenges that women such as Farida face every day, and their tremendous courage. When they say they are 'OK and fine', it is not the same as when I say it.
But for sure their courage motivates and inspires us continuously. And, tragedies like this even more so.
We send our deepest condolences to Farida's family, and we are looking for ways in which we can honour Farida's name and work.