Keynote and Speaker Biographies
We are thrilled to present an incredible lineup of speakers at this year’s symposium events.
Thank you to our esteemed participants for joining us.
Keynote Speaker: Nila Ibrahimi
Nila Ibrahimi is a young Afghan Hazara girl and a fearless advocate for the rights of girls in Afghanistan. At just 16 years old, she has already made a profound impact on her community and beyond. It all began in March 2021 when she discovered her voice and the power it held. The Kabul Education Directorate had made a discriminatory decision to ban schoolgirls from singing in public. However, Nila refused to remain silent. With determination and bravery, she recorded herself singing a powerful song, encouraging girls to pursue their education and stand up for their rights. This vocal activism made her a target when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan just a few months later, in August 2021. As a member of Sound of Afghanistan Music Band, Nila continues to use her voice to promote women’s rights, peace, gender equality, and humanity. She delivered a compelling speech at the annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in May 2023, followed by several speeches in the US. She also continues to deliver various speeches in Canada and around the world.
Keynote Speaker: Sara Wahedi
Afghan-Canadian Sara Wahedi is the CEO and Founder of Ehtesab, Afghanistan’s first civic technology startup. Sara was named as one of TIME Magazine’s ’Next Generation Leaders’, Forbes ’30 under 30′, MIT Technology Review’s ‘Innovators under 35’ and the BBC’s ‘Top 100 Women’, for her work in democratizing access to information for Afghans. This year, Sara will receive the ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ award from One Young World in Belfast, Ireland. Ehtesab has been providing near real-time security and city service alerts to Afghans through the ‘Ehtesab App’ (meaning “accountability” in Dari and Pashto) since June 2020, which expanded from five cities to nationwide coverage in 2023. The application also allows users to send reports on incidents which occur in their vicinity – becoming the first citizen engagement platform in Afghanistan’s history. Due to the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s and girls’ education and self-agency, Ehtesab is working on providing instant-access digital guides instructing women about the procedures for dealing with threatening or emergency situations, providing women with tools to safely de-escalate, disrupt, and record their grievances in a method which will be integral for future accountability purposes. Before starting Ehtesab, Sara worked for the Office of the President of Afghanistan, responsible for supporting social development policy and projects across the country, primarily funded by the World Bank and IOM. Sara is currently completing her studies in Urban Studies and Data Science at Columbia University.
Born and raised in Afghanistan, Somaya Amiri is in her second year of BCL/JD as a McCall McBain Scholar at McGill’s Faculty of Law. Although she considers herself a Vancouverite at heart, she moved to Montreal for her undergraduate degree. She completed her Honours B.A. in Political Science with a minor in French from McGill University as a Loran Scholar. Her experiences working on parliament hill, the municipal government in France, her recent journey working for the Refugee Law Project in Uganda, and her involvement in immigrant and refugee communities shape her understanding of human rights and its interplay with politics and law. She looks forward to joining CW4W and supporting women’s education in Afghanistan, an issue she is deeply passionate about. Somaya joined the Board in 2022.
Heather Barr is an associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. She has researched human rights in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, South Korea and the US on issues including child marriage, girls’ education, women’s access to health care, domestic violence, online gender-based violence, so called “moral crimes”, “honor violence” and “virginity exams”, the rights of refugees and prisoners, torture, civilian casualties, freedom of expression and association, and human trafficking. She was the interim/acting co-director of the Women’s Rights Division from 2018-2021. She joined Human Rights Watch in 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan, as the Afghanistan researcher, after working for the United Nations on human rights and legal reform in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi and Jordan. After law school she litigated a class action lawsuit on behalf of imprisoned people with psychosocial disabilities in New York City and founded an alternative-to-incarceration program for people with psychosocial disabilities who had committed felonies. Before law school, she worked in a New York City shelter for homeless women. She is a graduate of London School of Economics, Columbia University School of Law, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Seattle Central Community College.
Youth Event Speaker
Richard Bennett was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan on April 1, 2022, and officially assumed his duties on 1 May 2022.
A dual citizen of New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Mr. Bennett graduated from the University of Auckland with M.A. (1st Class Hons) in 1988. He worked at NZ’s Ministry of Justice and the NZ Human Rights Commission before joining the United Nations in 2000.
▪ Mr. Bennett has previously served in Afghanistan in different capacities including as the Chief of the Human Rights Service with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) from 2003-07 and in 2018-19. He has been a long-term adviser to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
▪ Mr. Bennett also served with the United Nations as the Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and head of the human rights components of peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, and South Sudan.
▪ From 2007 to 2010, Mr. Bennett was the Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal and head of OHCHR’s office there. He has also been Chief of Staff for the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka and Special Adviser to the Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights in New York.
▪ Mr. Bennett worked for Amnesty International from 2014 – 17, initially as its Asia-Pacific Program Director and later as head of Amnesty’s United Nations Office in New York. From mid-2019, he worked as a consultant on UN human rights assignments in Afghanistan, Myanmar and New York.
Mr. Bennett is a visiting professor at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Lund, Sweden, which has commenced an Afghanistan programme.
Gavin Brockett is a historian of the Middle East and Islamic world, currently serving as Vice-Dean in the Faculty of Arts. He is Director of International Students Overcoming War (ISOW) that is a student-led and primarily student-funded humanitarian initiative that provides protection through full scholarships to students impacted by state fragility, conflict and violence. ISOW began in the classroom in 2013, and has since grown to partner with numerous organizations to provide more than 30 undergraduate and graduate scholarships to students from Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Myanmar, Turkey, Somalia and, most recently, Afghanistan. ISOW is dedicated to expanding its support for young women from Afghanistan in the years to come, and is actively seeking partners to supplement the funding provided by both the student body and the university.
Shogofa Danish is a former female Afghan Journalist. She graduated from the Journalism faculty of Kabul University. She also studied a one-year Peace Journalism online course in the JMIC at the Oslo-Metropolitan University of Norway. She has worked in the media section for almost seven years as a news anchor and political programs interviewer, Channel Manager, presenter, and producer from 2015 to 2021 in Afghanistan. Moreover, she taught Media law subjects to political sciences students of Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan (a private University in Afghanistan) between 2019 and 2021 in Afghanistan. Now, she is one of the fellows of JHR (Journalist for Human Rights), working with global news as a Digital Broadcast Journalist based in Ottawa. She is also a board member of the advocacy committee for women journalists committee – AJSO ( Afghanistan Journalist Support Organization).
Fran Harding is a member of the Canadian Federation of University Women in Ottawa and is very active in their outreach group, University Women Helping Afghan Women, as their Advocacy Lead. She is also a member of the Ottawa Chapter of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. After retiring from a career in communications in the Canadian public service, Fran volunteered with several non-profit groups supporting disadvantaged women in the community. Fran is married and has one son.
Hilary Homes is a long-time human rights activist who currently works for Amnesty International Canada as a crisis and tactical campaigner. As a young leader, they developed youth participation and leadership development programs at the national and international level before shifting to strategic campaigning. Over the years they have focused on a wide range of thematic and country-based files including children affected by armed conflict, the arms trade, international justice, the human rights impact of national security measures, and mass surveillance.
Nazila Jamshidi, a dedicated professional in inclusive international development and democratization, boasts a decade-long career in Afghanistan’s progress. As a skilled advisor and program creator, her focus centers on empowering marginalized communities through international development, foreign aid, and institution building. Nazila’s journey began by closely examining human rights barriers, gender equality, and social justice across Afghanistan’s provinces. Earning degrees from Georgetown and Columbia University, she recognized the need for systemic change, driving her to collaborate with renowned organizations such as the UN, USAID, and IFRC. Her influence ranges from groundbreaking projects fostering inclusion to training Afghan officials. Her role in shaping gender equality policies and democratic values within Afghan government entities is pivotal. Currently based in Washington, D.C., Nazila serves as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisor, embodying her commitment to inclusive societies and sustainable development.
Victoria Jahesh’s profound impact at the Afghan Women’s Centre of Montreal (AWCM) is marked by her unwavering commitment to advocacy and empowerment. As the Executive
Director, she has championed social justice, women’s rights, and gender empowerment, channeling her passion into initiatives that resonate across the community. Her strategic
leadership and vision has been instrumental in driving AWCM’s mission to new heights, fostering an environment where women can learn, lead, and thrive. Under Victoria’s
guidance, AWCM has become a beacon of support for vulnerable and marginalized women, offering programs and resources that address their unique needs. Her innovative approach to healthcare information dissemination has ensured that the community, especially newly arrived individuals, can access crucial knowledge in a language they understand. Victoria’s advocacy extends beyond the confines of the centre, with her active participation in conferences and panel discussions shedding light on the challenges faced by Afghan women. Her collaboration with partner organizations amplifies the voices of those who often go unheard, and her influence has been pivotal in driving policy changes and creating awareness about issues affecting marginalized communities. Furthermore, her dedication to fostering inclusive spaces is evident in AWCM’s diverse and impactful initiatives, which empower women to overcome obstacles, connect with their cultural heritage, and integrate seamlessly into Canadian society. Victoria’s ability to forge connections, build alliances, and drive meaningful change highlights her role as a dynamic leader within both the AWCM and the broader Montreal community.
Fatema Kohistani holds a Bachelor of Law and a Master’s of Political Science. She obtained her defense lawyer’s license in Afghanistan and focused her practice on domestic violence, divorce and family law. She worked with the Women & Children Legal Research Foundation as a Research Coordinator and Project Manager, and was a Legal Fellow at Global Rights, a Master Trainer at the Education and Training Center for Poor Women, and a human rights trainer, besides a teacher at girls’ schools. She has conducted field research on security and gender issues, IDPs, and wrote several papers on women, peace and security. She’s a member of the Women Peace and Security Working Group led by UN Women, the Women’s Coalition for Peace Committee, Human Rights Defender Committee, Women in Urban Governance, the Improving Coordination Against Sexual Harassment Committee, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Committee (that developed the Anti-Harassment Law presented to parliament) and the Advocacy Committee on Women’s Participation which developed a Women’s Manifesto calling for women’s participation in the peace process. She’s a member of the Emerging Young Women Leaders Congress-Afghanistan and Pakistan. She is currently the Country Coordinator for the Women’s Regional Network and since 2022 she works with CCIS as an interpreter and coordinator of Afghan clients, and recently started studying at CDI College
Katrina Leclerc is the Program Director at the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), a multi-award-winning peacebuilder and published researcher. At GNWP, she oversees the organization’s gender- and age-sensitive peacebuilding programs in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and the Arab world. Katrina has been leading GNWP’s policy advocacy on the synergies between the United Nations Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) agendas since 2014. She has served as a technical expert to national and local governments developing policies on WPS and YPS, including in Canada, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Lebanon, Nepal, and Rwanda. Most recently, Katrina led the development of Chad’s first National Action Plan (NAP) on WPS and served as an advisor to the DRC’s first NAP on YPS.
At home, Katrina serves as the Government Advocacy Chair of the Canadian Coalition for YPS (CCYPS) and sits on the board of the WPS Network-Canada (WPSN-C). In 2022, she chaired the WPS Dialogues FPS process, to ensure the strong representation of civil society perspectives in Canada’s third National Action Plan on WPS. She spent several years as Parliamentary Affairs Advisor in the Senate of Canada, focusing on inclusive and participatory policymaking on women and youth rights. Katrina is a Ph.D. candidate in conflict studies at Saint-Paul University. She holds a master’s in peace and conflict from the University of Manitoba and a bachelor’s in human rights and conflict resolution from the University of Winnipeg.
Michelle Manks is a Canadian expert on immigration and educational services for refugees with over 15 years of experience. She is the Senior Manager of WUSC Durable Solutions for Refugees programming. Her passion for the cause has been instrumental in the remarkable growth of the Student Refugee Program, which she has overseen with great success. As an expert for the Technical Assistance Partnership (TAP) initiative, Michelle, alongside WUSC and Andrée Ménard, work collaboratively with the Government of Mexico to strengthen the capacity of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) representatives to develop better viable, efficient, and gender-sensitive structures, processes, and internal systems. Under Michelle’s leadership, the program has experienced exponential expansion, tripling in size and impact. Moreover, her innovative approach has resulted in the implementation of self-sustaining funding mechanisms, ensuring the program’s long-term viability and effectiveness. Her invaluable guidance encompasses a diverse range of topics, including institutional and student engagement for refugee integration and the development of legal pathways to protection through education. Based in Ottawa, Michelle is a trusted advisor to parliamentarians, governments, NGOs, and higher education communities worldwide. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree, a Master of Conflict Studies, and a diploma in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies.
Julie Marshall is a communications and public relations specialist with over 30 years experience developing and implementing strategies for national and international organizations. She managed the United Nations World Food Programme’s (WFP) communications in Canada for over 16 years. In her role, she promoted the work of WFP, built partnerships, briefed the media, organized interviews, worked with private sector partners, goodwill ambassadors and managed Canadian social media channels. She is now Communications Consultant for the UN agency, International Fund for Agriculture Development for North America and for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
Dr. Vrinda Narain
Dr. Vrinda Narain is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at McGill University. Her research and teaching focus on constitutional law, social diversity and feminist legal theory. She is the author of two books: Reclaiming the Nation: Muslim Women and the Law in India and Gender and Community: Muslim Women’s Rights in India, both published by University of Toronto Press. She is the 2017 recipient of the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice’s Charles D. Gonthier Research Fellowship. She was Associate Dean, Academic, at the Faculty of Law from 2016 to 2019. She is an executive board member Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and also President of the South Asian Women’s Community Centre in Montreal.
Nargis Nehan, given the title, “Iron Woman of Kabul” by Bloomberg in 2019 when she was the Mines and Petroleum Acting Minister, has dedicated her life to developing Afghanistan by empowering women and youth and fighting corruption through government and civil society. Ms. Nehan is one of Afghans who migrated to Pakistan during the civil war. While her family’s priority was to meet the very basic needs of life, given her passion for education, her family found ways to financially support her to complete her education. As soon as she graduated from high school, she started working for an international organization to support her family while pursuing her higher education in the evening. When the Interim Administration of Afghanistan was established, Ms. Nehan returned to Afghanistan to take part in her country’s reconstruction. Ms. Nehan has served public offices as Director General of the Treasury Department at the Ministry of Finance and Senior Advisor to the Ministers of Education and Higher Education. During her service, Ms. Nehan initiated several reform projects and implemented them successfully. During her service in the public sector, Ms. Nehan earned the reputation of a patriot and a reformist woman. After seven years of service in the public sector, Ms. Nehan felt her routine jobs were not satisfying her passion, and she left government to found EQUALITY for Peace and Democracy (EPD) a civil society organization for empowering women and youth. During this time, Ms. Nehan also served as a member of the Supreme Council of Afghanistan’s Central Bank. After the establishment of National Unity Government, Ms. Nehan once again was called to join the government, serving as Advisor to President for two years and Acting Minister of Mines and Petroleum for almost three years. Since collapse of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and all the restrictions Taliban enforced on Afghan women, Ms. Nehan is living in exile and tirelessly advocating for Afghan women’s rights and restoration of democracy in Afghanistan.
Lauryn Oates has worked in various leadership roles with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, including as the Programs Director before becoming Executive Director in 2018. She holds a BA Honours in International Development from McGill University, an MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding from Royal Roads University, and a PhD in Language and Literacy Education from the University of British Columbia. She has worked with a variety of development organizations, multilateral agencies and governments designing, planning, evaluating or implementing programming in education and in gender equality, particularly in war-affected countries. She is the recipient of several awards and distinctions, including a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. She believes passionately in the power of education to transform individuals who in turn transform their societies.
After two years of preparatory school in Nancy (France), Xavier Prudent graduated from the Engineering school of Grenoble for Physics. He then completed a master in particle physics and astroparticles at the Joseph Fourier University, and a PhD in experimental particle physics on the international BaBar experiment based at the Stanford linear accelerator. The PhD led to postdoctoral positions at the Dresden then Bonn universities (Germany) with the international ATLAS collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider. Besides fundamental research on experiment and phenomenology, Xavier Prudent took a very active part in teaching students of various grades, science vulgarization for the general audience. His academic pathway ended after a postdoctoral position as scientific guest at the Max Planck institute of cell biology and genetics as bio-statistician. He currently works as director of technology for Civilia, a Canadian company dedicated to the improvement of the public transportation of all scales, from large projects like the REM to micro-transport in remote villages. Understanding and transmitting can summarize his path, and he currently enjoys drawing for his vulgarization blog cestpourtantclair.com and teaching for CW4WAfghan.
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Laila Rashid is a passionate feminist who believes, and has experienced firsthand, that the empowerment of women and girls has a powerful positive impact on social, political, and economic conditions globally. Laila is a lawyer specializing in commercial law and corporate governance, and has over 12 years of experience working in Canada, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Laila obtained her LL.B. in the U.K. and her LL.M. in New York, is a member of both the New York State Bar and the Law Society of Alberta, and is fluent in English, Arabic and Farsi. Laila joined the Board in 2018, and served as Secretary of the Board from 2018 until accepting the role of Chair in January, 2021.
Hally Siddons is a recipient of several awards including the Ottawa Distinguished Women Award, and CFUW “Notable Women”. Hally began her career in music and over the years developed instrumental music programmes in Canada, England and the United States with festival-winning concert bands and orchestras. Retirement brought time to study international issues, always an interest to her. Meeting Dr. Sima Samar, then Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in 2010, opened her mind to the needs of women and girls in Afghanistan and the reality that we could help. This led to the co-founding of University Women Helping Afghan Women, an interest group of the Canadian Federation of University Women-Ottawa. UWHAW goals have remained constant since the beginning – to continue to learn about the issues facing women and girls in Afghanistan, to raise awareness of such, locally, nationally and internationally, and to support and advocate for them as they can. Over the years UWHAW has raised some $170,000 and helped some 111 young women with scholarships at Gawharshad University in Kabul until the doors were suddenly and tragically closed in December 2022. Most recently UWHAW and CFUW-Ottawa have joined a partnership with CW4WAfghan to offer CA4WAfgahn Remote Communication Assistance to select young women formerly students at Gawharshad. Online learning is not a permanent solution but the only viable option for young women in Afghanistan to continue their learning at this time, and UWHAW is delighted CW4WAfghan has provided this opportunity. Hally has developed an extensive network and feels passionately about the need and obligation of our voices and actions in the wider world. Together we can support the courageous and determined Afghan women help themselves. We can, and we must.
Dr. Carolyn Watters
Dr. Carolyn Watters is Professor Emeritus, Computer Science, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was Dean of Graduate Studies and subsequently the Provost and Vice President Academic for Dalhousie University and led many international initiatives to build collaborative programs with universities and governments. On secondment from Dalhousie University, Dr. Watters served as the inaugural Chief Digital Research Officer of the National Research Council Canada 2019-2021. Carolyn is a committed role model, nationally and internationally, for higher education of women in science and technology, including as a member of the founding board of Women Unlimited.
Emily Regan Wills
Emily Regan Wills is an associate professor of comparative politics in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. She co-directs the Community Mobilization in Crisis project, a member of the UNHCR-facilitated Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, which develops and implements blended learning opportunities for refugee and host communities globally. Outside of work, she is active in LGBTQ+ refugee resettlement in Ottawa.
Murwarid Ziayee is Senior Director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. She is responsible for program management, and supporting public engagement outreach and fund development, while maintaining strong connections between the country office in Kabul, and the Canadian board, executive team and membership. Murwarid has a BA in Political Science and Law from Kabul University. Prior to moving to Canada in 2018, Murwarid managed the day-to-day operations at the Kabul Office, undertaking the monitoring, evaluation and reporting on our partners, programs and projects. Before joining CW4WAfghan, she worked with UNAMA for six years as a National Gender Affairs Officer and later as a National Human Rights Officer. She has worked closely with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and served the Office of the President as Program Officer with a focus on analysis of women’s rights issues. Murwarid joined CW4WAfghan in 2010.