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afghan womenAlthough Afghanistan’s Constitution, ratified in 2004, forbids discrimination and declares that “man and woman, have equal rights and duties before the law,” gender inequality still persists. Women are repeatedly denied opportunities for social, educational and economic advancement, leaving 80% out of the workforce and only 8% with more than a primary education. Gallup surveys conducted in 2018 identify Afghan women as the “least satisfied women in the world,” with more than half reporting that they would permanently leave the country if given the opportunity due to discrimination, food insecurity and violence. The good news, however, is that the United Nations Mine Action Service has enacted a new initiative in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province that mobilizes women to escape poverty and empowers them to clear war-torn communities of the remnants of war.

Poverty and Conflict

The World Bank estimates that the number of people living in areas overwhelmed by conflict has doubled since 2007, a rate that has increased alongside poverty expansion. People living in fragile and conflict-affected situations, or FCS, are 10 times more likely to be poor. Forty-three of the world’s most impoverished countries are classified as FCS regions. Proximity to conflict directly affects education, infrastructure, health and the economy. In violent areas, children are less likely to travel to school, families are more likely to suffer long-term medical conditions and communities lose valuable opportunities for monetary mobility and advancement.

The Taliban has sustained a significant presence in Afghanistan for over a decade and has remained a constant threat. More than 1,400 people were killed or injured by landmines in Afghanistan in 2018, a number that has tripled since 2012. Mines and other explosives are certainly detrimental to infrastructure after detonation, but unexploded devices can be equally as destructive. Construction projects are largely avoided for fear of encountering an explosive during the building process. This leaves many areas without roads, essential buildings and airports, all assets that could play a role in reducing poverty.

Dauntless De-Miners

The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) began a de-mining pilot program in 2018, featuring 14 brave Afghan women in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province. After receiving training from the UNMAS de-mining experts, the women strap on Kevlar vests and sport protective face shields that enable them to search the soil using massive metal detectors. Once a detector beeps, the team member will kneel and sift through the dirt until the mine or explosive is found and deactivated.

The primary goals of the program are to clear mines, educate villagers and equip Afghan women with the tools they need to escape poverty. The team works approximately nine hours per day, but depending on location, mine removal projects may be short-term. In circumstances where land can be swiftly searched, the team uses the remaining time to learn vocational skills taught by UNMAS workers, training that has the potential to change their status. Additional education for Afghan women, who would otherwise receive very little, is crucial to broadening their job opportunities, increasing household income and helping them rise out of poverty. UNMAS also requires women to participate in meetings that decide how to use the land that is newly mine-free, which showcases their growing presence and immense contribution to their historically war-torn communities.

Fatima Amiri was one of the Bamiyan province’s first team members, and she is frequently highlighted for her dedication. She works tirelessly for her team after witnessing the devastating effects of hidden and unexploded devices. A member of her community traveled to a mountain on the Day of Eid, or the end of Ramadan, and never returned. Amiri realized that day she wanted to rid the surrounding area of mines, and she notes that now, “no one says that women are weak.”

Brace for Impact

Afghanistan’s fearless team is looking to expand its efforts beyond the Bamiyan province in the coming years. Since its inception, the team has covered more than 51,500 square meters and is projected to clear their land of mines and explosives by 2023. Most of the cleared region is now being used to build infrastructure or for farming, a lifestyle that boosts community economies and indirectly improves Afghan women’s social status. The de-mining women are recognized for their success and newly respected for providing their fellow community members with safety, food security and ways to maintain a steady income, three things crucial to overcoming conflict-induced poverty. The community’s appreciation erodes traditional gender norms that have restricted Afghan women for centuries by proving their value as productive members of society capable of protecting thousands in war-torn communities.

Natalie Clark
Photo: Flickr

Women in Peace and Security

In mid-June, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to discuss the importance of women in peace and security, a follow-up to the Women, Peace, and Security Act (WPS) passed in 2017. This particular hearing responds to the recently published White House Strategy that sets various objectives and goals to diversify the roles women play in the peace process and increase women’s leadership by providing them with the resources, skills, and support needed to secure successful peace agreements.

The members of the committee, as well as the testimonies, emphasized the opportunity to put these plans into immediate action in Afghanistan. The U.S. has committed to peace negotiations with the Taliban but each agreement has failed due to miscommunication, stalemates, or other political reasons. Palwasha Kakar, Senior Program Officer for the U.S. Institute of Peace, stated that including Afghan women in peace and security negotiations is essential to the success and sustainability of peace and recovery in Afghanistan.

Women in Afghanistan

The Taliban government of Afghanistan held power from 1996 to 2001, during which Afghan women were stripped of natural rights–they were prevented from obtaining an education and job, showing skin in public and leaving the house without a male chaperone. Rape and violence against women were widespread until U.S. military action overthrew the regime. A driving factor of U.S. intervention 18 years ago was to protect Afghan women from threats and actions against their human rights. Despite the tremendous gains women have achieved in political, economic and social life since 2001, women still struggle to have a seat at the peace talk table.

However, Afghan women have found ways to participate at a local level. Women have brokered local deals by negotiating directly with Taliban leaders; for example, Afghan women’s communication with the wives of the Taliban helped facilitate the release of hostages several times. Second, Afghan women use their access to information to act as informants for the U.S. and its partners. Third, Afghan women mobilize the public by increasing public awareness and support for the peace process. Fourth, Afghan women have mobilized support across various ethnic lines to push for a unified commitment to equal rights for all Afghan citizens.

Impact of Women on the Peace Process

On a local level, Afghan women in peace and security positions have made significant achievements for Afghanistan and its cities. However, on a global level, women were only included in two out of 23 rounds of negotiations with the Taliban between 2005 and 2014. Yet research shows that women are a necessary asset at the negotiation table. When women are involved in peace agreements, they are 64 percent less likely to fail and 35 percent more likely to last more than 15 years. In her testimonial, Jamille Bigio argues that women in peace and security negotiations are more likely to deescalate tensions and stabilize their communities. Therefore, closing the gender gap will improve a country’s conditions.

Four Focus Areas Outlined in the WPS Strategy

The outcome of this hearing suggests that women’s participation in Afghanistan is essential to create a stable and sustainable agreement. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to simultaneously use and revise the following four goals from the WPS Strategy to encourage multi-agency resources and support for women’s participation in Afghanistan peace talks.

  1.  “Seek and support the preparation and meaningful participation of women around the world in decision-making processes related to conflict and crises.”
  2. Three activities to support this goal includes: Incentivizing women to participate in security-sector programs that train foreign nationals in male-dominated courses, integrating local women’s interests into conflict prevention and resolution, and leading by example by increasing American women participation and making local women partners.
  3. “Promote the protection of women and girls’ human rights; access to humanitarian assistance; and safety from violence, abuse, and exploitation around the world.”
  4. Women are often the targets of violence, and therefore experience unique consequences of conflict. To increase the role of women in peace and security, the U.S. must identify and eliminate obstacles that generate sex-based discrimination and gender-based violence and include medical care and psycho-social support for women as part of humanitarian aid.
  5. “Adjust U.S. international programs to improve outcomes in equality for, and the empowerment of, women.”
  6. Train U.S. diplomats, military and development personnel on the needs and perspectives of women to increase their ability to prevent and mediate violence and support the involvement of women in peace and security negotiations.
  7. “Encourage partner governments to adopt policies, plans, and capacity to improve the meaningful participation of women in processes connected to peace and security and decision-making institutions.”

Women peacekeepers receive more trust from their communities and therefore have more power to increase participation among other women. Further, research shows that women are more likely to address social issues during negotiations, which helps communities recover. Women’s participation increases the likelihood of reaching a sustainable agreement.

Women are essential for achieving peace and security in Afghanistan, and vice versa. The U.S. is more likely to bring peace to a hostile environment with women’s participation. As Sen. Tim Kaine said at the hearing, “We [U.S] have incredible power to give people hope and inspiration, and I hope we will continue to do it. And I think there’s a lot of women in the world who really have grown to count on us during the years, and I hope we don’t let them down.”

– Haley Myers
Photo: Flickr

Training for Refugee Women
The struggles that face the increasing refugee population in the greater Seattle area continue to persevere. As these new residents search for employment, they are presented with language barriers, cultural differences and non-transferable professional degrees or certificates. Nonprofits like Muses are offering culpable training for refugee women.

Women from Afghanistan are often accustomed to contributing to their family’s well-being by the small-scale production of textiles, soap, furniture, jewelry and other handmade goods.

When these women arrive in the U.S., it is often difficult to translate their skills successfully into the job market.

Oftentimes, refugee families are in a financial position where both adult members of the household need to work. For many women, this is the first time they are faced with entering an official work environment, let alone one that follows the Western standard of living.

Sandrine Espie and Esther Hong realized back in 2012 the potential that refugees and low-income immigrants, women, in particular, had to contribute to the workforce.

They were inspired by the talents of these women and out of this inspiration came Muses. Muses is a Seattle-based nonprofit that aims to educate and provide these women with the skills necessary to enter the workforce.

Through research and interviewing, Espie and Hong found that there is a high demand for local, high-quality apparel manufacturing services. Their services aim to provide training for refugee women, enhancing their existing skills to aid them in finding a job.

Muses has also inspired other organizations in the area to pursue similar training programs.

World Relief Seattle, a non-profit that partners with the local church and focuses on refugee resettlement, has recently taken steps to begin a project specifically geared toward employment for Afghan women.

The program will ideally feature extensive orientation for women about work environments in the U.S. as well as instruction on using sewing skills to contribute to the financial security of their families.

In 1996, when the Taliban banned women in Afghanistan from working or attending school, the idea that women are less capable than men was ingrained into the eyes and minds of many people.

Through training programs for refugee women like Muses, women are gaining economic and personal empowerment and are learning to contribute to the sustainable market for handmade goods in Seattle.

Peyton Jacobsen

Photo: Flickr

First Woman District Governor Aids Development of Afghan Women-TBP

In 2013, Afghanistan’s Independent Directive of Local Governance and the United Nations Development Programme’s Subnational Government Program held merit-based recruitment for District Governors and Civil Servants. One District Governor chosen for a poor province that has lacked local governance for years was Ms. Sayra Shakib Sadat—Afghanistan’s first female District Governor.

Sadat works to help bring the government closer to the people of Kuhwaja Do Koh in the Jawzjan Province. She feels that it is important to hear the demands of the people. That is why, as part of her work, Sadat is focusing on education and the development of Afghan women. She also came from a poor uneducated family, and it was not until later that she received an education and worked her way into politics.

Since Sadat took office, more women and girls are in school and working than ever before. There are programs out that teach women trades and skills so that they can work outside the home.

For example, Sadat set up the Tailoring and Needlework program. The women’s transport fees are paid and they are provided with the tools they will need; therefore, the women have fewer out-of-pocket expenses that could hinder their education. Each year, the technical school graduates roughly 50 successfully skilled women. Sadat even takes the time to visit the school and check on the conditions.

When Sadat took office in January 2013, there were three schools between 32 villages for over 3,000 school-aged girls. Her office has been working to increase the number of schools and ensure that as many of these girls as possible have access to education.

The women in the community fully support her and her strides to educate women to give them the opportunities to be successful. They feel that by having a female District Governor, Sadat can better relate and provide what the women need. The women already feel like actions are taking place and opportunities are changing for the better.

– Katherine Hewitt

Sources: Afghanistan Today, UNDP, Youtube
Photo: UNDP