The South Asia Channel

A Step Forward for Afghan Women?

Afghanistan’s about to launch a plan that will promote the role of women in peacemaking. It took a lot of hard work to convince men that women should play an equal role, and the battle isn’t over yet.

Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah listen during a gathering on the last day of campaigning in Kabul on June 11, 2014. Afghanistan's election will go to a run-off vote between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, results confirmed, as the country enters a new era without NATO combat troops. The head-to-head election, scheduled for June 14, will choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

Mahbouba Seraj had a tough job: convincing traditional Afghans that women should play an equal role in rebuilding the country. For months, Seraj traveled across Afghanistan to drum up support for an ambitious new policy framework to ensure women’s equal rights and participation in governmental decision-making, protection from violence, and human development.

The National Action Plan (NAP) was born from United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which promotes women’s participation in peacemaking and security. Only 48 countries have adopted NAPs since the passage of 1325 15 years ago — each with varying degrees of success. Afghanistan plans to officially launched theirs soon — the date is still being determined — and when it does, it will become the second predominately Muslim country in the Middle East/North Africa region to boast such a plan (the other being Iraq).

In a country beleaguered by decades of violent conflict and Taliban extremism, the passage of this progressive gender plan is no small feat — especially in the face of tremendous backlash to other international efforts intended to “engineer gender inequality,” as Alissa Rubin wrote this week in the New York Times. The milestone offers lessons for the other 146 countries still grappling with whether and how to make similar gender equality commitments.

One of the first lessons: couple initiatives to change national policies with a simultaneous, and equally powerful, movement to change national culture. As a civil society leader, that was Seraj’s dual objective.

How did she do it?

By asking resistant men to imagine Afghanistan as a half-crippled body. Without the inclusion of 50 percent of its citizens, how could Afghanistan really achieve national peace and reconstruction?

“It’s just a simple fact — we need two hands, two legs, two feet,” she said. “And honestly, this [argument] really worked. They got it.”

Increasingly, it looks like a much larger swath of the country is starting to “get it,” — it being the idea that you can’t achieve stabilization and security without women’s inclusion. The NAP launch alone doesn’t amount to any guarantees — after all, there are still no women in the country’s new cabinet. But it’s an important step that reflects Afghanistan’s changing gender record. “There is a paradigm shift in Afghanistan,” Seraj says. “Slowly we are seeing more men coming on board and supporting programs and processes that involve women.”

This paradigm shift has taken years. In 2007, Seraj and the large civil society Afghan Women’s Network she works with began agitating for a National Action Plan.

It was an auspicious beginning. At the first official NAP meeting in 2009, a male elder of the upper house of parliament, “gave a speech about recalling a history of women as prominent actors in the resolution of local conflicts, acting as a grounding force for their culture and country,” recalls Michelle Barsa, deputy director for policy and conflict programs at the Institute for Inclusive Security, an American nonprofit that advises NAP drafting processes, including Afghanistan’s. “I was shocked that he was one of the first to stand up and talk about why he thought 1325 mattered.”

Challenges emerged when leaders traveled out to the provinces to convince both government and religious leaders of the NAP’s value, and to gather feedback about the major security concerns of that province.

During a meeting in Paktika province, for example, one citizen worried aloud that involving more women in the peace process might backfire given the Taliban’s anti-women stance. Right now, there are nine women (out of 70 total members) on the High Peace Council, the national body overseeing reconciliation.

Eventually stakeholders came to the consensus that “we can’t compromise basic rights, responsibilities, and contributions of women, who are half of our society,” said Saeedullah Reshteen, the Afghan government’s program coordinator who was embedded in the foreign ministry during the drafting process. Reshteen also remembers one incident during a government meeting about three months into his job. A member of parliament started shouting at the NAP group: “The U.N. Security Council is America — we don’t want these Western values!”

In many cases, changing minds often came down to semantics — tweaking the vocabulary around issues of gender equity and women’s empowerment. In Farsi, “gender” has a loaded sexual connotation, explained Samira Hamidi, a representative from the Afghan Women’s Network. There was, Reshteen suggested, confusion about what “gender” means in a political context — as a way of simply referring to women’s roles in society. Development goals were the vehicle through which much of the advocacy took off, consistent with Afghan priorities. So the term “gender equality” became “ social equality.”

Members of civil society and government also worked with religious leaders to tie their arguments to Islam and local traditions — an attempt to de-emphasize the foreign roots of the policy framework.

And yet, in some ways, the ultimate success of the policy is inextricably bound to the international community, particularly Western nations that may end up paying for its implementation.

“While Afghans have exhibited huge political will and a huge commitment, the Afghan government will not have the money to pay for it,” said Miki Jacevic, vice chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security. “ If you don’t have the money for it, we should not kid ourselves that Afghans will implement this.”

Though the Finnish government has supported the creation of the NAP along the way, Jacevic worries that there will not be enough fiscal support to actually implement this policy — and that rhetoric from other countries about support for Afghanistan won’t translate into dollars.

In some ways, with a fragile peace process and NATO troops withdrawing, the stakes for success are higher than ever. “We’re creating public policy in an environment where the nature of conflict and war has changed,” Jacevic said. “NAPs recognize that this war broke out because of oppression and exclusion due to ethnicity race and gender. [Now] there is a recognition that we need to approach challenges in a way that will find practical solutions with everyone’s help and perspectives.”

But even if the NAP isn’t implemented according to plan, Barsa maintains that the process of developing the plan was “just as important, if not more important, than the actual plan itself. The reality is that you have men all over various ministries” who can now articulate why it’s important for women to be involved at all levels of government, she said. This has already influenced ministry agendas and priorities. For example, the Ministry of the Interior created an internal working group to promote the recruitment and retention of women to the Afghan National Police. This initiative, Barsa said, was a direct result of the collaboration between women’s civil society groups and the government in advancing NAP implementation with or without the formal policy document.

Another big implementation challenge will be presented by the changing of the guard. What happens when the key NAP architects are replaced by legislators that don’t feel the same sense of ownership — and don’t have the same understanding of the framework?

At least Seraj isn’t going anywhere. It’s Afghans like her who will ultimately see the policy through. Seraj, who is 67, was born and raised in Afghanistan, but left in 1978 to come to the United States. She returned to Afghanistan in 2003 after she heard about the Taliban shooting a woman in the back of the same stadium where, as a young woman, she had seen Duke Ellington perform. “It made watching from afar more painful to me than anything else,” she said. “I rented my house, packed up a few things, and went to Afghanistan. And I’ve been involved with women in this country ever since.”


Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative, a project of the Breadwinning and Caregiving Program at New America.
Leila Hilal is a senior fellow for the International Security Program and the former director of the Middle East Task Force at New America.

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