Defying terror attacks and civil unrest during Afghanistan’s presidential runoff election, a courageous cohort of women from remote corners of the country came together in Kabul to pursue a common goal: gaining a serious role for women in building peace and stability.
The 21 women joined a four-day session led by the Afghan Women’s Network and The Institute for Inclusive Security to strengthen their advocacy and conflict resolution skills. The June workshop marked the end of an ambitious two-year initiative by both groups to advance female participation in Afghanistan’s peace process. To date, the program has trained 60 women from 12 of the country’s 34 provinces.
These are no ordinary women: They were chosen for their community leadership, and they have been tested in local, and sometimes national, conflicts during decades of warfare and bloodshed. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women have taken up vital roles in security and rebuilding, from mediating tribal disputes to increasing access to justice.
“There’s a lot of incredible work undertaken by the women of Afghanistan, and much of it goes sight unseen,” said Michelle Barsa, Inclusive Security’s Afghanistan team leader. “This work needs to be leveraged and supported by the international community for it to continue, which is one reason why our program is so critical.”
The Afghan Women’s Network and Inclusive Security both work with women who are already prominent leaders, and who want to increase their impact.
The goal of the training is to leverage the gains women have made at a critical time for Afghanistan, with the presidential election finally decided after months of turmoil, and U.S. and other international forces withdrawing. The program is action-oriented and personalized: each woman creates her own set of activities, such as community outreach, work with the media, and engagement in provincial peace councils.
This was the second meeting for the 21 women; their first workshop took place in New Delhi, India, in April. The June workshop in Kabul commenced against the backdrop of angry street protests in the sprawling capital city over alleged fraud in the balloting.
Over the first three days, the women reunited with trainers from Inclusive Security and the Afghan Women’s Network to sharpen their skills and discuss the obstacles they face in their home districts. Barsa and Inclusive Security Vice Chair Miki Jacevic ran advocacy simulations with the women, who identified barriers to women’s participation, including cultural barriers, and direct threats to their safety.
But the women also shared major successes, in some cases flowing directly from their training.
One soft-spoken woman named Amina, from Herat province, returned from the New Delhi convening determined to share what she’d learned. She organized workshops on women’s role in the community, one of which was attended by wives of Taliban insurgents.
Amina forged relationships with these women, visiting their homes and listening as they shared their concerns. When Amina learned that her distant relative’s 18-year-old son had been kidnapped by the husbands of these women, she convinced the wives to get involved. Amina’s intervention paid off – after 13 days in captivity, the boy was set free.
Another woman, Hasina, also from Herat and a vocal member of the provincial peace council there, organized her own two-day training program for a group of more than 50 female leaders on how to craft messages and recommendations. These women had been frustrated that their repeated requests for meetings with policymakers were ignored. But at the end of the program, Hasina helped the women draft a list of recommendations for their involvement in the Herat peace process, which they presented at a press conference that earned national media attention. The Herat policymakers then agreed to meet the women.
Candace Gibson, Program Assistant for Inclusive Security, said, “It was phenomenal to see that kind of attention, and to see the women take full ownership of the skills and knowledge they’ve gained. That provides a sense of confidence and security to other women.”
On the fourth and final day of the workshop, the women had a rare opportunity to put their new skills to use: They met face-to-face with policymakers, some of them major international players, and presented their recommendations for women’s inclusion in the peace process. These proposals included increasing women’s representation in decision-making bodies (only nine of the 70 members of the High Peace Council are women), educating women on the peace process, and improving transparency.
“For women to meet with elected officials like this is almost unheard of [in Afghanistan],” said Barsa. “And they did so with a clear policy agenda, advocating for the needs of an affected community and trying to enact change.”
A member of the Afghan parliament who participated in the training said, “From top to bottom, women’s participation in the peace process should not be symbolic.”
At the end of the workshop, the women returned to their provinces with a promise to continue their advocacy work, even with Afghanistan on a knife edge and riven by ongoing conflict and insecurity.
“They’re doing incredible work,” said Barsa. “They’re mediating intertribal disputes, educating people about the process, and building engagement in their communities, even if people don’t approve.”
The international community cannot abandon its support for such peacebuilding training, Barsa said, or it will jeopardize the gains in stability and inclusion that have been won at such high cost since 2001.
“These women are stepping up to take control of the future of their country,” Barsa added. “They’re saying, “This is what’s working, this is what’s not, and here’s how we want you to fix it. I think that’s where the hope of Afghanistan’s future is.”
Molly Raskin is a freelance journalist. The Institute for Inclusive Security commissioned her to write this article.