Since 2001, a growing number of female changemakers in politics, economy, and civil society has inspired many other women striving for equal participation in societal affairs – but there is a long way to go! Both genders must work together to make previous progress last and bring transformative change to a traditional Afghan community.
More than symbolism – meaningful political participation
From 2001 until the first steps of the peace process in the past months, the promise of equal rights for women has been the most significant selling point of the post-Taliban order. And yet, opportunities to build and shape the institutions since then have been mostly given to men. Every government since 2001 has promised equal participation of men and women in the public sector and yet failed to meet that commitment. According to the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission, the share of female government employees has reached 27 percent after nearly two decades - an all-time high but hardly satisfactory.
Even when women are appointed to leadership positions, these appointments often appear to be symbolic gestures, undermined additionally by insufficient coordination among female leaders and organizations. In the Wolisi Jirga (Lower House), for instance, women hold 27 percent of the seats but have failed so far to form a sufficient consensus to promote gender equality. Among thirty-seven suggestions for cabinet posts put forward by President Ashraf Ghani and High Council Chairman Abdullah Abdullah, only three were female candidates. Foreign donor countries, in particular those in the West, are vocal in their support for women being meaningfully represented in the peace negotiations. Still, only five out of 21 members of the Afghan Government's Negotiation Team are women. The almost complete absence of women in recent high-level consultations on questions of national importance shows that there is still a long way to go.
Economic empowerment – leaving no woman behind
Women's economic empowerment is essential for Afghanistan's future. And still, insecurity, tradition, and limited access to education and opportunities prevent women from equally participating in the workforce or even thriving as entrepreneurs. On the community level, traditional mindsets often prevent women from having control over their economic possessions or even their property. As a result, women have always stayed financially dependent on the men in their families.
Steps for improvement have been small. Established in 2014, the Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) is working to represent, meaningfully advance, and secure Afghan women's economic interests, nationally and internationally. Between 2001 and early 2019, 1,150 female Afghan entrepreneurs have, with support and loans from the international community and AWCCI, invested a total sum of more than USD77 million in businesses in Afghanistan, which created 77,000 jobs across the country, especially in Kabul. Out of 14 members of the High Economic Council, only three are women. One reason for this is, in part, government negligence as women who lead small businesses historically have received less support and attention from the state. Also – and this is not an issue for Afghan women alone, international partners should also be cautious not to limit assistance to female entrepreneurs to urban centers, leaving rural women as business owners behind.
Afghanistan's female powerhouse: civil society
As civil society activists, but also in academia, media, and the arts, women have gained more space and support to contribute to the emergence of the new Afghanistan than in the areas of government, security, and economy. With the assistance of the international community, they are strong advocators and lead pressure groups who influence policies and governance. Many women-led organizations are operating in Afghanistan since 2001 and have been struggling for gender equality, the elimination of gender discrimination, and the full development of democracy. Women's rights defenders advocated not only successful for the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law to be passed and integrated into the 2018 penal code, but also for the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan to monitor progress, or the lack thereof, on an annual basis.
Three steps towards female community leadership for social justice
Since 2004, the FES Young Leaders Forum (YLF) has promoted gender equality and facilitated an open exchange among its female and male members on how to move ahead on inclusion. Between 2018 and 2020, a series of female empowerment workshops developed by the social enterprise "Philia" helped YLF alumni to work on individual resilience and self-awareness, peer coaching techniques, and community building, and to establish clear paths to action for social justice beyond gender issues. In these trainings, participants realized the importance of their roles in society, built on their leadership skills, and learned tools and techniques needed for personal, interpersonal, and societal growth.
And yet, female empowerment is not a woman's job alone; it is a task for all Afghans. A healthy community is made of both men and women, taking each other's rights and needs into consideration to move forward. On the political level, especially with the peace negotiations gaining traction, legal rights, and spaces for women to participate must move from paper and symbolic gestures to reality. To achieve this and expand both inclusion and female leadership to all spheres of society, women must come together, claim their spaces, and build bridges and alliances with men. So, for the last part of our workshop journey, male and female members of the YLF network came together to celebrate gender equality with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music on International Women's Day and to discuss ways for men to become women's real allies for inclusive leadership.
To learn more about the programme, please watch our journey in the video!
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