Afghanistan's most valuable resource for peace? Its women

by Carla Koppell | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 16 July 2010 15:58 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As attention turns to the July 20 donor conference in Kabul, the international community must recognise that lithium and cobalt aren't the most important resources to be tapped in returning peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. Women are the key. Too often dismissed as victims, Afghanistan's women are eager to help shape a positive future for their country. They are ready.

Afghan women proved their abilities to contribute during the recent Afghan National Consultative Peace Jirga. They successfully advocated to increase their numbers at the jirga from a distressingly low 20 (of about 1,600 political, religious, tribal and other leaders) to more than 400.

They participated in every one of the 28 working groups and won nominations to act as leaders and deputy leaders of some of those groups. Najia Zewari, a woman and a women's rights expert, served as deputy chair of the entire jirga. Some women presented final recommendations in the plenary.

Additionally, they enabled Afghanistan's male-dominated political leadership to leverage their expertise. Women came prepared to offer technical advice on next steps; for example, the Afghan Women's Network had led the development of a women's position paper on reconciliation and reintegration to feed directly into the jirga process.

While the most tangible outcomes of the jirga do not focus on the role and rights of women, what occurred inside the jirga was critical. It showed that attitudes are changing in Afghanistan more quickly than many outsiders believe - and more often than not it is a result of the efforts of Afghan women themselves.

That's why the jirga can be seen as a great success for women's rights - it signals a positive trend for the future of inclusive governance in Afghanistan. That matters because research shows that when women play a part in making decisions about peace and security, those decisions are more likely to produce sustainable peace. The engagement of women also broadens participation in the wider democratic process.

MEN'S ATTITUDES SHIFTING

Not only do many qualified Afghan women want to play leadership roles in that country, a significant share of the men in leadership want such change to happen. At the jirga, women representing the provinces, the parliament, civil society organisations and refugees returning from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan sat down with male warlords, policymakers, elders and Taliban sympathisers.

It was a sight that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago; no one would have expected women to play such a public, dangerous role. Many men would have rejected women's participation.

Participants like Palwasha Hassan, an expert on women in politics in Afghanistan and founding member of the Afghan Women's Network, noted that the attitude of men changed even during the three-day jirga: ultimately, many of the speakers mentioned women's rights.

Women mobilised male allies to support them. And while some men continued to be uninterested in listening to women leaders, other men vocally countered conservative messages by quoting the Koran and the Afghan Constitution in favour of women's rights.

Some of the men who moved from skepticism to support for women's participation just in the days of the jirga have since followed up with individual women participants to build alliances around implementation of specific decisions.

The upcoming one-day Kabul Conference, slated for July 20, is the next major opportunity for Afghan women leaders to play a decisive role in the future of their nation. It is also the next major opportunity for those wanting a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan to leverage the expertise of the nation's women.

The conference will bring together representatives of more than 70 partner countries, international and regional organisations, and financial institutions to deliberate and endorse an Afghan government - led plan for improved development and governance.

The Afghan government and its partners worldwide must make sure women participate and have strong voices in deliberations; otherwise, an opportunity to further strengthen peacebuilding will be squandered.

Whether and how women participate in the Kabul conference is not simply about women's rights. It is an opportunity for the Afghan government and the international community to learn from past conflicts. Sustainable peace cannot be achieved when half the stakeholders are not at the table.

The international community can do no better than to rally behind the courageous women of Afghanistan and make sure that they have a voice in their country's future. Their desire for peace and their homegrown struggle for rights must be heard and respected.